There’s an urge to resist, especially looking at the calendar and seeing the playoffs as less than a month away.
Looking at the standings, the offensive efficiency and championship pedigree on the sidelines, the question must be asked: Is it time to believe in the Los Angeles Clippers?
Their 109-101 loss to the Phoenix Suns didn’t inspire confidence in the notion, as they had a chance to move into the second seed in the West and clinch a playoff spot. Not only are they chasing the Suns, but also holding off the surging Denver Nuggets for the third spot.
Of course, this movie has been seen numerous times, and they had the aforementioned attributes last season before the choke job to the Nuggets prevented the basketball world from seeing the playoff series it longed for with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But at some point, old narratives must die and new ones form, right?
There are two teams with the “Can’t get right” label, albeit to various degrees: The Clippers and the Washington Wizards. Washington hasn’t won 50 games in the modern NBA, i.e. Magic and Bird being drafted. The Clippers haven’t been that anemic, but it’ll take a lot for anyone to fix their lips to say they believe in them in a playoff series that matters.
The bad taste from the bubble is fresh, and whenever an unexpected loss happens, those memories pop up as confirmation bias — that the Clippers can’t do it, won’t do it and never have done it.
Every time Paul George has an off night, or Kawhi Leonard takes a couple nights off, the ugly history resurfaces and no matter the recent win streak or gaudy advanced stats, it’s a reminder they’re still the Clippers, the choking dogs who can’t finish or handle prosperity.
But are things different, or at least better?
There are still some kinks to work out, with head coach Ty Lue calling his team’s defensive communication “terrible” in allowing a first-quarter explosion and fourth-quarter game of keep-away on the offensive glass when Chris Paul wasn’t putting his stamp on the contest.
But quietly, they look like the deepest team in the league when all parts are healthy, which could give Lue the toughest job of anyone — having to establish a rotation without actually seeing everyone in action together.
Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Lakers have taken up much of the oxygen with the “do they have enough time to get right before the playoffs” conversation, but the Clippers deserve the same bandwidth.
Serge Ibaka is getting closer to a return after a back injury pushed him out of action since the middle of March, and Leonard is battling a sore right foot. Patrick Beverley should be back in early May after surgery on his left hand.
“I hope so, you know, I think about it all the time about Serge coming back now, if he's able to get back right now before the playoffs start,” Lue said.
Lue has insurance in the meantime, with DeMarcus Cousins signed for the rest of the season and Rajon Rondo being added at the trade deadline. But he’ll have tough decisions to make if he gets a full complement and won’t even have the practice time to sort things out.
Talking to people with the Clippers, everything is couched with “if.”
“If we’re healthy …”
If there’s such a thing as having too many good players, the Clippers could actually be exhibit A. Lue has decisions to make, and he admitted to already thinking about the playoffs and potential matchups, choosing not to insult anyone’s intelligence but also, being quick to say he doesn’t talk about it with his players yet.
“Well, I think the last month of the season I start preparing potential candidates we could be playing and just trying to get in my mind,” Lue said. “I think every single day, shootaround and practices through playoff preparation situations where we work on different defenses, we work on different things.”
Perhaps it’s to keep the heat of playoff pressure at the door as long as possible before letting it engulf this group, a smart move considering most of the questions have been about the intangibles and mental makeup more than the actual talent.
They hit their threes (41.6%) and their free throws (83.6%), both tops in the league. The Leonard-George-led offense means there are a lot of contested shots that fall, which is twofold. So much of the playoffs is about being better than the guy in front of you, and that’s been Leonard more times than not. George has been the target of a lot of chirping for what he’s said and hasn’t accomplished in the playoffs, which won’t change until he does.
It’s almost as if his days in Indiana, going toe-to-toe with the dynastic Miami Heat, are erased. It’s almost as if his return from that gruesome injury he suffered with USA Basketball and the resilience it took to return to an elite level has been forgotten.
If there’s any player who should be supremely motivated for May, June and heaven forbid, July, it’s George. His handle has gotten tighter, meaning he can get anywhere on the floor, and his shooting across the board are at career-high marks — meaning the expectations to replicate these regular-season performances will rise.
And if the Clippers and Suns manage to meet up in the second round, keep a watchful eye on George and Paul — the two aggressively snubbed each other during the postgame lovefest and George went “next question” after a benign question postgame about what makes Paul tough to guard.
George is getting ornery as the playoffs near — a good sign from here.
A healthy Leonard takes pressure off everyone, and as decorated as he is, he’s in need of playoff redemption.
But even then, they need someone to make defenses uncomfortable, to apply pressure, to create looks when tough shots lead to tough results.
Is that Rondo, the two-time ornery champion? They’re depending a lot on Reggie Jackson in Beverley’s stead for the moment, but one thinks that’ll change somewhat when the games truly matter.
Assuming the Lakers are at full strength (read: LeBron), they’ll get good shots late. Although it hasn’t been seen much, same for the three-headed monster in Brooklyn. Phoenix has Paul, even though his history as a Clipper produced some checkered moments in the playoffs.
With the Clippers, there will always be questions until there are answers, rightfully so. Lue had a front-row seat to last summer’s failure, but to this point, he’s not entertaining the demons and how it could affect his club.
“Just play,” he said.
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