It’s time for another check-in with the NBA’s most mysterious team, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Where does Doc Rivers stand after the first weekend of the new year? It’s definitely a much better place than two weeks ago, when this team was barely over .500 and languishing in the mushy, broad middle section of the NBA. Yet, for all the gains the Clippers have made, it’s still pretty easy to look at their improvements and chalk them up to outside factors.
First, the undeniably good news: Entering play on Tuesday night, the Clippers are 22-13. Believe it or not, this makes Los Angeles one of only five teams in the NBA with a record that’s at least nine games over .500 (along with Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City). The Clippers are in the midst of a six-game winning streak, and anyone who follows the team can see that the injury to Blake Griffin nearly two weeks ago has counterintuitively enabled some productive lineup combinations to emerge.
Austin Rivers has come alive in recent weeks, enabling the Clippers to become more dynamic at the offensive end of the floor. Twitter might have gone nuts when Rivers torched the San Antonio Spurs in extended portions of last spring’s epic first-round playoff series, but the coach’s son continues to make himself useful on the floor. He is invigorating the team’s second unit, and he is thriving as a consequence of not having to deal with primary ballhandling responsibilities.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Blake Griffin injury has made Doc Rivers more inventive in all the right ways. The Clippers aren’t merely surviving these weeks without Griffin; they’re unbeaten in this stretch without him. This repeats a familiar pattern from recent seasons: The Clippers have had to work around injuries to core players, including Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick. Yet, they’ve finished in the top four of the West on a regular basis, enough to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They’re well on their way to doing that again, and they’re just two games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for third place in the West.
The Clippers have begun to remind observers why they’re one of a few teams which expect to win at least 50 games every season, and why they merit legitimate consideration as an NBA title contender.
Yet, for all the Clippers are beginning to do, there’s an easy way to take all the fun out of this brief but valuable resurgence: It has been achieved against also-rans.
It’s not as though the Clippers should somehow be comforted if they ever do lose to a ho-hum team, but their climb in the standings has been built on the back of a cushy schedule. Los Angeles, now that the Charlotte Hornets have fallen to 17-17 (Monday night after a loss to Golden State), has won each of its last six games against teams without a winning record. The Lakers, Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans, Utah, and Philadelphia represent the Clippers’ victims. Even in the midst of a big winning streak — one achieved without Blake Griffin for most of the journey — the Clippers haven’t had the chance to shed the “not ready for prime time” label which has lingered over them like a cartoon rain cloud.
They’re just going to have to wait until April to do that.
Austin Rivers, Luc Mbah a Moute, Jamal Crawford — these players are shepherding the Clippers through life without Blake Griffin. When Blake returns, the Clippers could really become something. They could taste new possibilities and reach new horizons.
Yet, just when life is about to brighten for this franchise, something goes wrong. The Clippers might be surging right now, but the only surge which will fully be appreciated is one which lifts them to the third round of the NBA playoffs. Such is life when a six-game winning streak raises fresh questions alongside happy postgame press conferences.