Just a few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were humbled by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of their first-round series. The Spurs took a hammer to the Clippers in a 100-73 victory to move up 2-1 in the series, and with Game 4 also in San Antonio, it felt like a foregone conclusion that the defending champs would go on to win the series.
This would have led to more criticism of Chris Paul not being able to win in the playoffs and more criticism about Blake Griffin not being as big a star as he should be. Perhaps it would have led to questions about DeAndre Jordan‘s future in Los Angeles. At any rate, it would have been another season with high expectations that fell disappointingly short, even despite the unique circumstances of a first-round series against San Antonio.
But that scenario never played out, and instead of a disappointing first-round exit, the Clippers may now be the favorite to win the title with the Golden State Warriors on the ropes against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Los Angeles won Game 4 in San Antonio after that miserable Game 3 defeat, and after losing a crushing Game 5 back at Staples Center, next came two shocking wins to advance. Paul won Game 7 on one leg while Griffin chipped in with a triple double. The Clippers had gotten the reputation of a mentally weak team liable to fold under pressure, but the resiliency they showed in that Spurs series was stuff champions are made of.
That resiliency carried over to the second-round series against the Houston Rockets. With Paul sitting out Game 1, Los Angeles erased an early deficit and thoroughly destroyed Houston on its home floor in a 117-101 victory, with Griffin notching yet another triple-double. Game 2 also didn’t feature Paul, and while the Clippers lost, they remained competitive throughout the game.
With Paul back in Games 3 and 4, the series has become an absolute bloodbath. Los Angeles is firing on all cylinders, with its high-powered offensive attack proving to be no match for a hapless Rockets defense that has been wretched in the postseason after performing at a high level in the regular season.
To be that efficient offensively, you typically have to get major contributions from not just your star players, but your role players as well. J.J. Redick has been magnificent. Matt Barnes scored 20 points in Game 1 and has been an irritant on the defensive end. The much-maligned Austin Rivers has burst onto the scene in almost ridiculous fashion, averaging 16.0 points on 55.8 percent shooting overall and 55.6 percent from three in the series. Even Spencer Hawes has given some good minutes after being a forgotten man.
The Clippers have been excellent defensively as well with Jordan anchoring the middle. Los Angeles has given up 89.0 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the court in this series, compared to 108.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, per NBA.com. Sometimes foul trouble or the Hack-a-Shaq strategy can limit Jordan’s minutes, but when he has been in, he has been dominant.
With Los Angeles playing at a high level on both sides of the ball and getting big performances from role players to go along with the usual production from its stars, it’s becoming easier and easier to see a possible championship this season. It’s a foregone conclusion that Paul and the franchise itself will make their first respective trips to a conference finals, but their eyes are on a much bigger prize.
The Grizzlies or Warriors would certainly be a tough opponent in the Western Conference Finals, and if Golden State finds its mojo again, the Dubs would probably still be the favorite. But the way the Clippers are playing right now, they can beat anybody, and Los Angeles would be the favorite against any team that comes out of the Eastern Conference.
That Game 3 loss to the Spurs feels like eons ago, and that series against the defending champs may have been the best thing to happen to Los Angeles. The Clippers have overcome adversity and are battle-tested, and now Doc Rivers’s squad appears ready to make a run at a title.