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The Case For The Clippers

Paolo Uggetti |
April 22, 2015 | 11:17 a.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

Chris Paul is leading the Clippers, but how far can they go? (@FoxSportsSD/Twitter)
Chris Paul is leading the Clippers, but how far can they go? (@FoxSportsSD/Twitter)

This is the year of the Clippers. 

This is the year Chris Paul finally reaches the Conference Finals. This is the year the Clippers finally receive the much-earned Hollywood spotlight that has always been on their purple-and-gold peers. This is the year they reach star-studded expectations with their star-studded team. 

Loathed by seemingly every Western Conference opponent, misunderstood by some and defiant to a fault, this team is setting out to disappoint rivals with their success. 

Hot takes aside, there is little reason why this can’t be the year the Clippers finally usurp not just the throne of Los Angeles, but the kingdom of the West. 

And of course, it is only fitting that their first round opponents be the conference's longstanding dictators; the San Antonio Spurs, whose contrasting and clashing style to the Clippers renders a divisive and compelling first round matchup. 

One team has found success over the years, while the other has remained falling short of success year after year. One thrives on a collective depth that rivals the Pacific Ocean, while the other has a cringe-worthy bench and depends on a starting five that could also be the best in the league. 

One is the epitomization of stability and humble resolve. The other has been marred by instability while slowly attracting a bizzare, entitlement-fueled hatred from the rest of the competition. 

But this isn’t about just semantics. As many, including the Spurs, will tell you, notions, narratives and appearances don’t win titles, and there certainly are no moral victories in these playoffs unless you are first-time underdogs like the Pelicans, the Bucks or the Celtics. The Clippers’ resume doesn’t fit that bill anymore, and given their past playoff history, they would be the first to admit this has to be the year for not just progress but actual accomplishment. 

Throughout their previous playoff excursions, they have been battered and bruised constantly, and though talented, they’ve been eliminated annually. But like the iron in the fire, they have been forged into a playoff contender and molded into villains that care not for your preconceived vision of what a title contender is. 

More than any other year, they just want to win, and no one craves that desire more than their leader, Chris Paul. 

You saw it on Sunday night when the point guard otherwise known as “Point God” unleashed his omnipotent play on the court, spearing through screens, dishing at will and scoring with ease while the Spurs looked flummoxed trying to defend him. Tony Parker couldn't hang and forced the hand of Gregg Popovich to put Kawhi Leonard on Paul, simultaenously altering mismatches elsewhere that Paul exploited. This was all en route to a loud 107–92 victory over the Spurs; the perfect first step toward their barn burner of a series where many are still cautiously picking San Antonio to edge them out. 

With these Popovich-led Spurs, there is no question that this is the apt thought process, and it will be until they at least drop one at home. But after watching Sunday’s game there is little doubt that the play the Clippers can exert at their peak is more than enough to not only help them dethrone the champs, but take them to their promised land. 

Sure, their bench might be better off dressing in suits than in basketball clothes, but in a playoff-style that asks substantially more from the starters, this bodes well for this top-heavy team. In reality, they only need the services of two, maybe three bench players to post average numbers and at the very least maintain a lead. 

Case in point: Sunday’s game was a display of the Clippers starter’s at their best. While Paul made his presence known in every aspect of the game, Blake Griffin adopted an almost careless drive to flat-out dominate whoever was guarding him. It was like Griffin finally realized his athletic freak is really unmatched by anyone, especially anyone on the Spurs. 

Meanwhile DeAndre Jordan, who exemplifies the Clippers all-out defensive style, was propelled by his athleticism and created matchup problems and disruption with his every lengthy move. 

And the bench. Oh, the ill-fated bench that collectively drains the life and hope of the Clippers’ home crowd was actually…not that bad by the numbers. Don’t believe it?

The three non-starters who played the most minutes were Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis and Austin Rivers. Two of the top three players the Clips had in net efficiency rating—alongside Griffin—during the game? One was Crawford, whose presence on the floor made the Clippers 36 points per possession on offense better and the other was Davis who made them nearly 16 points better. 

Jamal Crawford's shot chart (via NBA.com/stats)
Jamal Crawford's shot chart (via NBA.com/stats)

Crawford, in particular, had one of his usual scoring sprees, sinking seven of ten shots from the field and giving that spry surge off the bench the Clippers badly needed when they went stagnant allowing the opposition to make it close. Davis made couple key plays, moved his body enough to gather four rebounds and was not as detrimental a nuisance to the team’s spacing as usual. Even Rivers was a plus overall and posted the third-highest offensive rating of the whole squad. 

That’s progress, but it also reiterates the point that the postseason requires only a few bench players to be tamed into workable pieces. Spencer Hawes and Hedo Turkoglu only played about 3 minutes a piece. Needless to say they weren’t needed and they probably won’t be for the rest of the series, as the starters know a high volume of minutes will be expected out of them night by night. 

Sure, a reliable bench would be icing on top of this devil’s food cake, but if if the two-time sixth man of the year in Crawford is making his expected impact, a mediocre duo of Davis and Rivers won’t be such a badgering issue save Doc Rivers stagger the lineups so that one of the Big Three or JJ Redick is always in rotation. 

And thats where the difference could be for this team. An errant rotation might be the bane of their playoff existence, an over-exertion of energy might reciprocate itself in the form of an unfortunate injury or burnout. It’s the playoffs, anything can happen and most likely will. 

But this team as currently constructed is better than it gets credit for. The perception most viewers had with them was that they were unpleasant to watch, always going about the game disjointed or half-heartedly. There was none of that on Sunday, where every move by CP3 and every dunk by Griffin was as aesthetically pleasing as it was effective. 

The Spurs had an uncharacteristically bad shooting night, and the small sample size of Game 1 is noted. But so is this team’s bickering feud and desire to expose their rivals in Golden State, the team that could await them in the Western Conference Final. Just getting there would already brand this season a success, but it’s clear this team won’t stop at simple satisfaction. They may have been getting overlooked and undervalued all season, but if they oust the defending champs everyone will be forced to take notice. 

A new supportive owner in the fold, a defiant Chris Paul in the lead, a headstrong Blake Griffin in the sky and an improved DeAndre Jordan in the paint. Like it or not, this year has all the makings to finally belong to the Clippers.

Reach Associate Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter at @PaoloUggetti.



 

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