PATTEN PENDING: PLAYOFFS START NOW IN WEST

The Playoffs are near. Eleven games and 24 days away for the Clippers.

But as the Clippers embark on their final multi-game road trip before the postseason begins, the Playoffs might as well have started already. It’s not because the Clippers play a particularly daunting schedule over the next three and a half weeks. They actually face five teams under .500 down the stretch.

No, the Clippers (50-21) are entering the final ticks of the season in a conference where the slightest slippage could cost them home court advantage in the first round. They won 11 games in a row and gained just two games on Oklahoma City for the No. 2 seed. Navigating the West to get to the Finals, whether it’s the Spurs at No. 1, the Clippers at No. 3 or someone else, will be like the Union Army squeezing out victory in the Battle of Perryville, arguably one of the bloodiest, most evenly fought battles of the American Civil War.

For Doc Rivers, who talked Monday prior to the Clippers’ 106-98 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, playing well heading into the Playoffs or sweeping their five-game road trip would be beneficial if only because it helps establish seeding.

“It’s a big trip for us,” Rivers said. “I don’t know if it is for the Playoffs, but winning on the road helps. I just think winning helps. Wherever you win, it helps. We want to win all of them and focus on one at a time. If we do win them all does that help us win in the Playoffs? I’m going to say, ‘No.’ It really doesn’t. It doesn’t hurt you and it helps you in the fact that it will definitely put you in a great position Playoff-wise as far as home court.

“It starts over again. That’s how I look at the Playoffs. You could play great going into the Playoffs and get there and a team just catches you and you’re out, especially in the West.”

It happened to the Clippers last year. They won seven in a row to close the regular season and waltzed to a 2-0 lead over the Grizzlies in round one, only to be knocked out in four straight between Games 3 and 6. Life in the Playoffs is tenuous.

And while Rivers doesn’t believe in seeking a favorable early round matchup, preparations for the litany of opponents they could face has already begun. Entering play on Tuesday, the Clippers could theoretically play as many as six first-round opponents. Portland, Golden State or Dallas are most likely, but that does not rule out Phoenix or Houston or heaven-forbid Memphis.

“From a staff perspective you have to look at it because you have to send your scouts out,” Rivers said. “You have advance scouts that usually scout the next games. Where on the next three or four games we’ll take them off the road and send them and assign them to one team. The problem is we may not have enough guys because there are so many teams you could play. We’ll still do that and probably bring in more guys.”

The Clippers are also amplifying their Playoff preparation in practice.

“Without getting too specific,” Blake Griffin said. “[We’re adding] schemes that we’ll have to use in the Playoffs, adding some sets that we probably won’t use until the Playoffs, adding a couple of defensive coverages that we probably won’t use until the Playoffs. Things like that. But really, all season long it’s kind of been the mindset.”

If the Playoffs started on Mar. 25, the Clippers would face the Warriors in round one with the Thunder and Mavericks playing the first round series on the same side of the Western Conference bracket. But the race for positioning will likely change daily, especially with the difference between fifth and staying home come Apr. 17 separated by four games.

The Clippers can clinch their third consecutive postseason berth with any combination of four wins or Suns losses. But even when they’re in, which could come as early as Friday, little else is guaranteed. The race will likely come down to that final Wednesday of the regular season when the Clippers travel to Portland for night two of a season-closing back-to-back.

The Playoffs might be near. But at this point, as the Clippers learned a year ago when it took a victory in their finale to clinch home court, the postseason has already started.