NBA PM: Clippers, Lakers & Spurs Near Ready
The Los Angeles Clippers clinched a playoff berth on Monday night. On Wednesday, they beat the Denver Nuggets on the road to climb to 39-23.
The Clippers are scorching hot, winning 13 of their last 15 games. They’re right on the heels of the 40-23 Los Angeles Lakers, but the Clippers will need to do more than just catch them. The Lakers own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of the season series (2-1).
LAC’s last playoff entry was back in 2006, advancing to the second round before falling in seven games to the Phoenix Suns.
With the emergence of Blake Griffin a year ago, the Clippers were confident they had a playoff team heading into the season. When the opportunity came to land Chris Paul, expectations both internally and externally rose dramatically.
Now the team is happy to have “reached the baseline,” but ultimately there’s still a lot yet to be done.
“We’re really excited to be in the playoffs, but that’s not the only thing we want,” DeAndre Jordan said. “We still have a goal for this team, and this is just one of the steps towards it.”
For the first time in STAPLES Center history, the arena has both Los Angeles basketball teams, along with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, in the playoffs simultaneously.
Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, despite having an All-Star point guard of his own in Russell Westbrook, has the utmost respect for Paul.
“Chris Paul, he’s the smartest point guard in the league,” said Brooks. “He plays every possession the right way.”
The Thunder have lost just 17 games all season (against 45 wins) and yet the Clippers are the only team to beat them three times.
After Monday’s game, Paul put his team’s home crowd on notice.
“I think the biggest thing is when it comes to the playoffs, it’s all about having an edge and I think our crowd [Monday] was excited but I’m going to challenge them too and tell them we need more,” said Paul. “When it comes to the playoffs, that home court advantage becomes really a sixth man, extra defender and we’re going to need our crowd like never before.”
The Clippers had a rough go in March when it looked like head coach Vinny Del Negro had lost the team. Instead, they’ve pulled themselves together after bottoming out and have been hot ever since.
“I think it’s our defense,” Paul said. “Our defense is a little more consistent now and we’ve just got to keep getting better at that. We have enough offensive power to play with anybody but our defense is what triggers us and when we defend we’re tough to guard.”
How did the team get better defensively? It’s not enough to say they just started playing harder.
“Just understanding principles and where we’re supposed to be and all that different type of stuff,” said Paul, keeping things close to the vest.
It’s easy to overlook how little teams have practiced this year. For a squad returning nearly the same roster like the Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, this season hasn’t been as disorganized.
Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey was still making roster changes midway through the season.
In what may be the most difficult game remaining, the Clippers next visit the Suns on Thursday night. Phoenix is currently in ninth place, a half-game behind the surprising Utah Jazz and fighting for their playoff lives.
The Clippers also host the New Orleans Hornets and play Atlanta and New York back-to-back.
Those final games may have a significant say in what teams the Clippers face throughout the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies are two games behind the Clippers and, as things currently stand, will be the away team in the first round against Los Angeles.
As far as second-round opponent, the Clippers would prefer to play the Thunder instead of the more experienced Spurs.
Match-ups become extremely important in the playoffs and yet not a single playoff series has been set with a week to go.
Lakers Keeping Pace
The Los Angeles Lakers improved to 40-23 on Wednesday with a 99-87 win over the Golden State Warriors on the road.
The Lakers have three remaining games, starting with a visit to San Antonio on Friday. They’ll also host the Thunder on Sunday before getting three full days off and then the regular-season finale in Sacramento against the Kings.
The Spurs and Thunder are jockeying for position, trying to claim the top overall seed in the Western Conference. Neither can fall below the two seed.
The Lakers may find the Spurs are the more favorable match-up, especially now that Kobe Bryant is due to return Friday. San Antonio would probably rather see the Clippers. The Thunder would like to avoid the Clippers and play the Lakers, if they could choose to do so.
Of course, no one knows exactly how the teams will seed finally, so it’s very much a guessing game as to who plays who.
The Lakers played well in Bryant’s absence (shin), bonding as a team in a way they might not have had he not sat.
“Everybody cares about each other and now all of a sudden you see guys pulling for one another in every situation,” said Lakers assistant coach John Kuester recently.
Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl was impressed by the Lakers without Kobe.
“I think the combination of [Ramon] Sessions and [Pau] Gasol touching the ball much more [has helped],” said Karl. “The ball is shared a great deal with Pau as an orchestrator, as a passer and a shooter from the outside (not the post) and Andrew Bynum and [Metta World Peace] bully up the middle, and Sessions kind of orchestrates it all and gives it a little bit of a brain – gives it a little bit of a point guard mentality.”
The key for the Lakers is relying on their inside game with the ever-emerging Bynum while benefiting from the obvious skills of Bryant.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich recently marveled at what Bynum has become.
“He looks like a totally different player to me,” said Popovich. “Honestly, I don’t watch every film of every L.A. game, but he looks so much more confident. He almost has a sign on his head that says ‘I’ve arrived’ and he’s confident in knowing what he can do.”
“The team knows what he can do so you see him down low,” continued Popovich. “A great inside-out team, we used to play inside out like that to that degree when Timmy [Duncan] was younger (for obvious reasons) and Bynum is showing that there’s a reason they’re throwing him the ball down there so much. He’s done a great job.”
Even with the recent surge, the Lakers don’t have a lot of depth to work with. That may be an issue at some point in the postseason.
Peace has become an impact player once again for the Lakers, after long stretches earlier in the season where he just didn’t seem to fit.
“From the defensive standpoint, watching him as the season progressed (and not to say that he wasn’t in shape at the beginning of the season) but to see him now in great shape, and have the ability to guard 1-4 four is an unbelievable attribute to have for a player,” said Kuester. “His demeanor in practice and during the game has been so impressive to me because I have never had the opportunity to coach him until this year. He’s meant a lot. His growth as a basketball player for us has been outstanding.”
Matt Barnes was also productive with Bryant on the sideline in a suit.
“When we play hard, we’re a tough team to beat,” said Barnes. “We’re so talented, but sometimes we’re lazy. When we’re lazy, we allow teams to do stuff that shouldn’t normally happen. When we pay hard, we’re a hard team to beat.”
Spurs Resting over Seeding
Popovich was explicit recently, saying he’d rather go into the playoffs healthy as a lower seed than risk injury to claim the best record in the West.
One of his tactics is resting players when the schedule becomes overloaded.
“When I do rest guys, I talk to them ahead of time and get their opinion and see what they think but it’s mostly dictated by schedule, in our situation our last thirteen games were in nineteen days and no playoff team’s even close to that and six are back-to-backs,” said Popovich. “I figure I better be smarter than the schedule, and the players understand.”
“For us, health and energy is more important than anything else,” continued Popovich. “You could see it last year, we won sixty games and the last game of the season Manu [Ginobili] goes down and it’s over. Health is what’s important, and the energy and the rhythm and so that’s what I’m trying to maintain.”
Popovich is hoping to have a better, healthier result and that the time invested in some of their younger players will pay off in the postseason.
“We start Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard for the entire year and if they start in the playoffs, will they be the same players they’ve been all year?” asked Popovich. “Or will that heightened intensity change them to some degree? Don’t know. You just don’t know.”
The Spurs have been led by Tony Parker this season, their runaway MVP.
“He’s done his best job ever,” said Popovich. “He’s always been able to score but he’s shooting the ball better than he ever has and he’s bringing more people into the game more than he ever has . . . he’s playing defense better than he has and his leadership has been off the charts. This has been by far his best season.”
The Spurs aren’t the same, slow-paced inside-out team of recent years.
“We are playing at a much faster pace and that’s the way of the NBA,” said Duncan. “You need to get the ball up the floor and teams are too big and guys are too good defensively. You need to get the ball up the floor and make things happen early.”
In a sense, despite the faster pace, it’s been easier on Duncan who doesn’t have to bang in the post night in and night out like he might have used to.
“Yeah, a little [easier] bit for me,” said Duncan. “It’s a lot less on my shoulders. Obviously my role has changed and I’m excited as long I’m winning, I’m excited to be part of it.”
The Spurs play the Lakers on Friday, followed by two games at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers. They’ll close the regular season on the road against the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors.
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