LOS ANGELES-Regular season out. Playoffs in. For the Los Angeles Clippers, this is where the rubber meet up with the road. The Clippers finished the 2016-2017 NBA season with 51 wins, thanks to a 115-95 win in the season finale against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center.
After wrapping up their eighth win in their last 10 games, the Clippers now have the Utah Jazz knocking on their front door in a first round playoff matchup. This won’t be any cakewalk for the Clippers. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, either.
At times, the Clippers have played and looked like the best team in the NBA. On other occasions, such at the 18-point, fourth quarter meltdown against those same Sacramento Kings on March 26, the Clippers have looked incredibly lost and inept on the floor. All the while, they still managed to put together another season of winning 50 games or more.
For this franchise, this is remarkable.
The 51 wins marks the Clippers’ fifth straight season with 50 or more wins, something that has never been done in team history. Some teams would be popping champagne bottles and gushing wildly over the accomplishment. The Clippers have bigger fish to fry.
Sure, this is a big deal, considering this is a great footnote to achieve for a franchise with a past history of going in the opposite direction. But there seems to be a cloud lingering over the Clippers that makes winning 51 games not amount to a hill of beans if the team fall short of making it to the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals.
That’s because the year-end, year-out plethora of not making it past the second round questions has gotten stale. This will be the fourth time in the last four years that coach Doc Rivers have gotten this bunch into the playoffs. The first three times the Clippers made their postseason push-they all ended with the same results: disappointment.
In each of those playoff defeats, something out of the ordinary knocked the wind out of the Clippers’ sail. The Donald Sterling debacle clearly affected the team during the Clippers first playoff run under Rivers. The Clippers, after they had defeated the Golden State Warriors in a tough seven-game series, found themselves on the outs in the second round, courtesy of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The infamous blown 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Houston Rockets followed the next season. And last year, with both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul sustaining season-ending injuries against Portland, the Clippers got bounced out of the first round by Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers.
Which leads the Clippers to a No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoff scenario and a first round matchup with the rugged Jazz, a team they had an edge over during the regular season. The buzz around the Clippers and the team’s expectations of going deep into the postseason is somewhat muted compared to the first three tries at this under Rivers.
The super talent of Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan, has been eclipsed by the hype of Golden State adding Kevin Durant in the midst of their Bay Area juggernaut, while both San Antonio and the Rockets have been fueled by MVP candidates in Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.
There was a time when Griffin was routinely mentioned in this conversation. Not this year, though. That’s because the Clippers sort of glided their way through the regular season, mired in stretches of inconsistency. That will have to change in the postseason, starting with protecting their home floor.
The Clippers recorded a non-impressive a 29-12 mark at Staples Center this season. In comparison, the Warriors went 36-5 at home. So the begging question is what will the Clippers do in their romp through the 2017 NBA playoffs?
No one has a clue. But the one constant that jump out is that the Clippers’ bench will have to stand up and be counted in order for the team to advance past the second round. It’s just that simple. The core of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of four players: Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers (if available) and Marreese Speights.
Speights, who came over from Golden States after signing a free agent contract, gives the Clippers a jumbo frontline with Griffin and Jordan. Speights is the Clippers new muscle who should be clearing space for Griffin, Paul and Crawford to operate in the low post.
More than any reserve players-even Crawford-Speights give the Clippers an intimidating presence and an extra scoring option on the inside, something the team has lacked in their past postseason runs. Earlier this season, Speights talked about his role with the ballclub, and what the Clippers needed to do to get tougher.
“That’s the scouting report when you play against the Clippers,” said Speights. “It’s always been. You play the Clippers, you hit them a couple of times, and their spirit is going to be down. We’ve got to find a way to get over that hump and do something different.”
Doing something different means not always getting in an official’s face to look for a call, Speights said.
“First we need to start really just leaving the refs alone,” Speights said. “Guys just got to sacrifice, do some other things than scoring, do some other things than your personal goals. Just try something new. They’ve been doing it here for four or five years and it hasn’t been working, so it’s time to try something new.”
Despite the constant rumor mill about breaking up the Clippers’ Big Three of Griffin, Paul and Jordan over the past couple of seasons, this nucleus is as good as there is out there. They just need a little bit of help from their teammates. Griffin, for one, is all in when it comes to keeping the team unified-good, bad or indifferent.
“This is where you see what your team is really made of, when you have a bad stretch, a bad couple of games and it’s not so great,” Griffin said following successive losses by the Clippers earlier this season. “We’ve got to stay positive and remember what made us successful and stick to that.”