This is when the old scenes push through the calendar pages and into the present day. With the playoffs about to start, the LA Clippers are on the clock more than ever and there are no shortage of reminders about getting a running start on the latest postseason flameout.
March 26. The Clippers had an 18-point lead ... in the fourth quarter ... at home ... against the Sacramento Kings ... and lost 98-97. And how about the disintegration against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the 2014 Western Conference semifinals. That's when Chris Paul made a series of crucial mistakes as LA went from 13 points up in the final four minutes and seven points ahead with 45 seconds left ... to a one-point defeat that permanently turned the series in Oklahoma City’s direction.
March 29. The Clippers beat the Washington Wizards at home, but only after wasting much of a 19-point cushion from the third period against an opponent on the second night of a back-to-back. And remember that time L.A. was up the same 19 in the same third quarter in the same Staples Center against the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals, coughed that up and then the entire series?
March 30. The Clippers, now the team playing the second night in a row, were up 12 late in the third quarter in Phoenix. That's when the Suns -- the same Suns in contention for last place in the West -- rallied for a tie with about eight minutes remaining in the fourth. And, look, there’s the 2-0 series lead against the Trail Blazers in the 2016 first round turning into another playoff elimination after Blake Griffin and Paul were hurt.
March puts Clippers through grinder
They’re tired because March was their turn to go through the schedule grinder. They’re not focused enough to put away lottery teams, and they’re making life more difficult on themselves by allowing vastly undermanned rosters to hang around until late in the fourth quarter, and that can happen to anyone. Except this isn’t anyone. These are the Clippers late in the regular season, with three consecutive playoff implosions at their back. And they face the real possibility of a first-round matchup against the Utah Jazz without home-court advantage.
The Clips would like to point out they have won three in a row, seven of 10 and -- as of Wednesday night against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET) -- have fallen forward into a favorable portion of the schedule. There are still games at San Antonio on Saturday (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET) and hosting the Rockets on Monday is daunting -- although with the possible upside that both opponents will be locked into their playoff spot and resting much of the rotation. But L.A. is in a stretch of two games over eight days, a windfall no matter what as the postseason approaches but especially for a team so tired.
The rest this week is a big deal and then it will be followed by another calendar break next week, the potential of one game in five days from the regular-season finale against the Kings next Wednesday. The Clippers finally have the chance to rest and, maybe, find their way again.
This is their opportunity, though: at worst they have four games spread over 13 days and maybe, depending when the first round opens, over 14 days. Three of the four are at home. Two of the four are against lottery teams.
It is partly, and perhaps largely, a perception issue, of course, because there is often no direct translation between how the regular season ends and the playoffs start. The Clippers are good enough -- sixth in offensive rating and 16th in defensive efficiency -- and experienced enough to be dangerous enough even if they end up fifth in the West. If they can inch past the Jazz for fourth place and home-court advantage, the conversation suddenly jumps from the Clips aimlessly wandering into the postseason to a nice finishing kick to build momentum. All of which is perhaps the difference in one game between now and next Wednesday night.
But they are still the Clippers in the playoffs, with everything to prove (even while taking the injury hex in 2016 against the Trail Blazers out of the conversation). Even the wins, especially ones against the Wizards and Suns, can become magnified to the point of spinning into a pressing update.
No pressure despite past early exits
The view from inside the locker room isn’t nearly as perilous, although shriveling up against the Kings did raise concerns. Griffin dismisses the notion that shocking exits the last three seasons is increasing the pressure this time.
“The last couple years two teams have won. Every team goes through losses. Every team has struggles in the playoffs. People just want to highlight us because of expectations. But it’s the playoffs. It’s basketball. There’s only one winner at the end of every year.”
And coach Doc Rivers said he is not concerned by the struggles to beat bad teams, or not beat, insisting the Clippers themselves see wins piling up in the standings, regardless whether they come with style points or a grimace.
“We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re right on the brink of it,” Paul said after the win in Phoenix. “I think that’s what it’s telling me. We’re capable of it. We know what to do. We’ve just got to do it ... You can never get too comfortable. That’s just always having that kill mentality and keeping your foot on the gas and paying attention to detail, knowing that teams are not going to give up.”
A mindset the Clippers need to capture, and fast.
“We definitely need to capture that,” Paul said. “I’ve got to do a better job of making sure we do that.”
Proving maybe they’re not so right on the brink of it, the Clippers followed that Thursday night in Phoenix by building a 22-point lead on the Lakers late in the third quarter Saturday afternoon and having it cut to eight with about three minutes left in the fourth before holding on. That got the Clippers to 47-31, and finally to a rest stop, and on the verge of something, all right. Exactly what remains to be seen.
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