The Los Angeles Clippers sealed their first Pacific Division crown in franchise history with a convincing win over their traditional oppressors the Lakers on Sunday.
While Los Angeles is embroiled in a power tug of war, the Lakers will reign supreme until the Clippers establish themselves as a real title threat and capture the town’s attention with a trip to the Finals.
The Lakers won’t be taking a backseat with their stable of superstars and sure fire headline making offseason deals if they fail to make the postseason, so the Clippers window for captivating the L.A. audience could be limited to late spring/early summer. Perhaps this is why the team’s celebration of their division title was so moot, because they know that their time has to be now or it could be never.
It has little to do with the fact that Chris Paul is not yet locked up a Clipper future beyond this season, though he is widely expected to remain in L.A., but more to do with how the Lakers will recover during this offseason. Dwight Howard has a quiet summer ahead to get back to 100% health while resigning with the team and management has time to figure out Pau Gasol’s future. And of course, there is the small matter of letting Kobe Bryant stew on a failed season all summer, an always dangerous proposition.
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The Clippers will finish with the four seed likely thanks to their division title, giving them home court advantage against Memphis in the first round of the postseason. Let’s take a good look at what it’s going to take for the Clippers to advance as far they need to go, no less than a primetime matchup against Miami for the championship.
ROUND 1-Clippers vs Grizzlies
The Clippers face a significantly tougher test than anyone above them in the standings in the first round as they take on Memphis, the best defensive team in the league. The Clippers are a top ten offensive team with the best point guard in basketball, which promises to make the series interesting. The Clippers lead the season series 2-1 with one matchup remaining on Saturday, but whether or not they can pull out a postseason series depends on two things: rebounding and defense.
Memphis doesn’t score the ball particularly well with the fifth worst offense in the league and the Clippers boast the fourth best defense in the NBA. That is essentially the biggest difference between these two teams. With Paul and Blake Griffin and a host of other guys that can score, the Clippers will get their points, they simply have to keep the Grizzlies offense out of rhythm.
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Memphis’ biggest weapon is their ability to crash the boards, an area the Clippers are somewhat weaker in. This is where the Clippers 47% shooting should be handy. While they couldn’t get by Memphis in the postseason previously, Los Angeles should be able to slip by the Grizzlies in a gritty full seven game shootout, but it may prepare them well for the road ahead.
ROUND 2-Clippers vs Spurs
This where the Clippers officially earn their championship credentials. Beating San Antonio during the regular season is no small feat, but the Clippers did it twice to split the season series 2-2 with the Spurs.
A series with San Antonio doesn’t favor either side in particular as these two teams boast around the same amount of firepower. Each one has a top 10 defense, shoots a high percentage and can score with the best of them. It’s a battle of great power forwards in Griffin vs Tim Duncan and a battle of two of the league’s best point guards in Paul vs Tony Parker.
When you break down these two lineups, the firepower and number of weapons is similar, but the difference comes in bench scoring and this is where the Clippers hold a slight edge with the fourth best scoring bench in the league. This will prove a massive difference in a seven game series and may just be what the Clippers need to pull it out, although it will undoubtedly take all seven games to beat a team with the experience of San Antonio.
I can’t honestly say who will win between Oklahoma City and Denver in the Conference Semifinals, a matchup that could very likely determine the winner of the Western Conference, but I can say neither matchup favors the Clippers.
In my opinion, this is where the road ends for the Clips in an entertaining six game series, but if they are to avoid that fate, they must improve in one key area; the paint.
If they are going to beat Oklahoma City or Denver, the Clippers have to dominate the paint on both ends of the floor, utilizing their front court duo of DeAndre Jordan and Griffin to their advantage to rebound effectively and draw fouls that can affect Serge Ibaka’s ability to effect the game with his shot blocking.
If they face Denver, defending the paint is even more crucial as the Nuggets top the league in this area. The Clippers have one of the best interior defenses around, but ultimately both OKC and Denver have a lot more muscle. If the Clippers make the Finals it’ll be a miracle orchestrated by one man on a mission and that man is Chris Paul. He’s better than Tony Parker, he’s better than Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson. He’s the one who has to lead this team to the promise land, no matter how good their front court and benches are, or else the Western Conference Finals is the best they can hope for.