The Thunder are slipping and the Clippers are in a position to capitalize on such and grab the no.3 seed in the Western Conference.
While the world keeps an eye turned to the Warriors’ pursuit of the Chicago Bulls’ 72-win record, the Clippers have their own pursuit to keep in mind: tracking down the slipping Oklahoma City Thunder to obtain the no.3 seed in the West — catching San Antonio at no.2 is unlikely for both the Thunder and Clippers.
As of now, the Clippers are 41-21, 2.5 games behind the 43-20 Thunder. Even with Blake Griffin out, the gap between the third and fourth seed isn’t unreachable. The Thunder haven’t exactly been their spectacular selves of late, losing six of their last 10 games including two late game disappointments to Los Angeles and Golden State. They still have two of the 10 best players in the NBA in Durant and Westbrook but for some reason this team seems vulnerable (though in the same breath, I could 100% see them ripping off a run before the playoffs because that’s how good their top guys are).
But the importance of grabbing the three seed isn’t for bragging rights, though maybe fans see importance in that factor. It’s to avoid the Warriors for as long as possible. If it was up to the Clippers, they’d find a way to walk into the NBA Finals without having to face their Pacific division peers and the best way for that to occur would be to not face them prior to the Western Conference finals.
In this scenario the standings would be 1) GS 2) SAS 3) LAC 4) OKC, with GS and OKC facing in the semi’s if/when both teams advance and SAS-LAC facing in the 2-3 matchup. We saw last year the Clippers have what it takes to beat the Spurs — even if it takes 7 games — and a growing consensus has the Thunder best fit to take down the Warriors if they can get it together as a team; unlikely, but possible given OKC’s generational talent it feels disingenuous to say the team has no shot.
Regardless the seed change, the end game could be the same: the Clippers get beat by the Warriors. That’s an end game no team in the league may avoid if they stumble upon the Warriors’ path to a championship. But from a perception standpoint, losing in the second round would echo sentiments from playoff failures of years past. It matters because the Clippers have never made it past the second round. It matters for Chris Paul, who’s playoff failures have forced a large portion of the NBA fanbase to underrate Paul who’s easily one of the seven best point guards in NBA history. It shows no progress in the tenure of Doc Rivers the team president/head coach.
Some of these are based on facts: second round has been Los Angeles’ ceiling since 2013, and 2011 if you want to include Chris Paul’s first years with the franchise when Vinny Del Negro led. Others, perception, and the only thing that changes perception in this league, as shown throughout the history of this sport, is winning.
What else perception entails? A possible blowup from panicking. The Blake Griffin trade rumors weren’t meaningless as Griffin wasn’t moved. It shows a growing frustration from a person (s) who was brought here solely to help the Clippers win. It shows the true issues were ignored, that Rivers’ coaching has slipped since Boston, that Rivers the GM has done a poor job surrounding his talented four (Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick) with functioning and consistent reserve unit.
Losing in the Western Conference finals, and in a respectable manner? Maybe management sees this core has the talents to win a championship, and take the time to address all red alert areas instead of seeking out the big fish.
From there, hope.
Even with the success post-Griffin’s injury, nothing feels to have changed in the dynamic of Clippers-Warriors. The Warriors, even with a slight drop off in bench play thanks to the absence of Festus Ezeli, are still superior and possess the talents to help neutralize the Clippers’ most notable assets, as well as they’re ability to take advantage the Clippers’ flaws: inconsistent bench play, Paul Pierce, mediocre perimeter defense, Paul Pierce, Jeff Green‘s inconsistencies, Paul Pierce, Luc Mbah a Moute‘s inability to space the floor, Paul Pierce, etc.
Regardless, if Los Angeles can beat San Antonio they’d advanced to unchartered territory: the Western Conference finals, and if they can do the unthinkable and knock off Golden State — maybe GS is winded after a tough series against the Thunder; who knows — or capitalize on a Thunder team fresh off an upset over the Warriors, they’d be in the NBA Finals, and that’s the goal for this team.
The road to the three seed begins with the Clippers defeating the Thunder tonight, which would tie the two teams in the win column. After that, it’s maintaining themselves through the upcoming stretch which consists of San Antonio, Houston, and Golden State in the next 10 games. If the three seed is the goal, its imperative they clinch wins against the better teams in the upcoming schedule, and avoid embarrassing losses to lesser teams, like the one to Atlanta last night, where the Clippers lead by 17 at some point.
The Thunder play a part in all of this but it feels like the ball is in the Clippers’ court, and if they fail to capitalize on the opportunity at hand, it’ll be dejavu for this group, and an annoying summer to follow, which none of us really want, regardless of the page views that’ll be obtained because of it.