The Thunder invite the Clippers into the Chesapeake arena once again to treat with them. The Thunder are clinging to the most tenuous of leads over the Spurs, and a loss tonight would send them back to the #2 seed. Meanwhile, the Clippers are fighting to climb up to the #3 spot, jump the Lakers, and avoid the one lower seeded team that nobody seems to want to play right now.
We turn again to Steve Perrin at Clips Nation to get a sense of how Clippers fans feel about their team right now as they head into quite unfamiliar territory - meaningful games in the months of April and May.
You can find my answers to his questions HERE, and we hope to do this again so if there are any questions you'd like for me to ask him, leave a comment in the thread.
The strange thing is, even after watching the Clippers lose to the Grizzlies last night, my eyes are not particularly scared of them. I'm terrified of what they've been doing to opponents lately, but I'm just not that scared of their talent. Don't get me wrong -- I really like that team, and I love the way they play. Lionel Hollins deserves a lot of credit for what's happening over there. But the Clippers' other likely first round opponent plays in the same building and happens to pretty much own the town. A series against the Lakers, regardless of who had the higher seed, could easily turn into seven road games for the Clippers. Admittedly some of the games would be closer to evenly split between the fan bases, but it's not much of a home court advantage against the Purple and Gold. More importantly, the Clippers have terrible match ups against the Lakers -- they have absolutely no one to defend Kobe Bryant, and Andrew Bynum just kills them.
Your suggestion -- get up to third and avoid the Lakers and Grizzlies and Lakers altogether is clearly the best option. If they would agree, I would agree. But if not, I think the Clippers can beat the Grizzlies. Memphis thrives on turning teams over, and the Clippers protect the ball as well as almost any team in the league. The Clippers are 2-1 against them this season, and in Monday's loss they staged a big fourth quarter comeback when they finally decided to play with some purpose. Obviously no one is very excited about playing the Grizzlies right now, given what happened last year and how they've been playing lately, but that's the nature of the playoffs, especially in the west. There aren't going to be any free passes.
2) What do you think the greatest strength(s) are that the Clips are taking into the playoffs, that you know they can exploit against other teams?
Well, let's see, there are just so many of them. Where should I start? There's, um, Chris Paul. And then there's ... oh wait, that's it, it's just Chris Paul.
I'm exaggerating of course ... but not a lot. If the Clippers are making shots it will make a huge difference, but that shooting has come and gone this season. If Randy Foye, Caron Butler and Mo Williams are hitting from the perimeter they can be a very tough out, because Blake Griffin is going to command double teams and Paul will break teams down off the dribble, and those shooters are going to get open looks as a result.
It remains to be seen how young players like Griffin and DeAndre Jordan respond in their first NBA playoffs. Likewise Foye, Young and Eric Bledsoe are postseason virgins. That's half the rotation. We know from experience that Paul has another level that he has reached in the playoffs on multiple occasions. Maybe one or more of the youngsters can do that also... but history tells us that actual playoff experience is important.
There's one potential secret weapon for the Clippers -- Bledsoe. The second year guard barely played the first two months of the season as he recovered from meniscus surgery. When he did get back on the court, he took him a while to get back into shape and to rediscover the explosiveness that made his rookie season so promising. The last few weeks, he's found that it again. He's still erratic, but he's got game-changing type talent. The big stage of the playoffs could overwhelm him -- or it could be the perfect chance for him to emerge as a major factor. He's not Russell Westbrook as an athlete -- but he's the closest thing I've seen to that sort of Westbrookian uber-athlete at the point guard. There are some who believe he's the best athlete on the Clippers, which is no small feat on a team with Griffin and Jordan.
3) What do you think is your team's Achilles Heel? What one thing could be their undoing against even a lesser team?
That one's easy -- defense. The Clippers have been in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency all season, and were in the bottom third for most of the season. There are time when they look pretty good -- but most of the time the team defense is a mess. The best team defense can recover to contest shots even against great ball movement, even when you think you've beaten them. Far too often the Clippers are the opposite -- they can't get the first rotation right, let alone the third or the fourth or the fifth. When I'm sitting on my sofa yelling at the TV for someone to rotate, when I see the rotation before the players on the court do ... well, that's not good. Not good at all.
Some of it is effort and focus. Presumably those things will be better in the playoffs. But every team will step up their defense in the playoffs. The Clippers have plenty of room for improvement there, so maybe they can turn it up a notch. But the adage is that defense wins championships, and as of now only the Denver Nuggets have a worse defensive efficiency than the Clippers among likely playoff teams. That doesn't bode well.
4) How has Chris Paul held up, and do you agree with Bill Simmons' recent comment that he's saving himself for the playoffs, but that he has another level to ascend to?
I don't know that Paul has saved himself for the playoffs per se. The dude is SO competitive that it's just not in his nature to be on the basketball court and not be doing everything in his capacity to win. Certainly not in the fourth quarter. He does seem to pace himself early in games, or maybe it's just that he's a little too unselfish in trying to get other people involved. There's little question that his profile is lower in games than it is late; but the dude always wants to win -- or rather, has he has put it, he "needs to win."
Paul's played 36.4 minutes per game this season. That's a lot (13th in the league), but he has averaged more in four of his seven NBA seasons, so at 26 I see no reason to think it's been too great a work load. This isn't Kobe playing 38.4 minutes per at age 33.
As for that next level, well he's been to the playoffs three times in his career, and he was healthy two of those postseasons. The two times that a healthy Chris Paul has been to the playoffs, he's led all postseason players in PER -- 30.7 in 2008 and 28.9 last season. Call it saving yourself, or taking your game to the next level, or playing best in the biggest situations -- some players can do it, and some can't. Whatever it is, Chris Paul is one of the best at it. He's the reason the Clippers will have a chance in any playoff series.
Many thanks again to Steve for his thoughtful answers. Be sure to check out Clips Nation when you have a chance to help get ready for tonight's huge game.