March 18, 2018, 1:25 pm
OPPONENT: Los Angeles Clippers
RECORD: 37-31 (20-14 at home, 6-4 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 107.9 offensive rating (seventh), 106.6 defensive rating (17th), +1.2 net rating (13th)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:30 EST, Staples Center (Los Angeles), NBA TV
Remember when the Portland Trail Blazers were jockeying with the Los Angeles Clippers for one of the bottom-two seeds in the Western Conference playoffs? That was about two months ago, and nothing the rebuilt Clippers have done in the interim suggests that they should be so far behind the Blazers in the current postseason standings. Los Angeles is 16-10 since Sunday, January 14, with a net rating of +2.4, the league’s sixth best, and wins over the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. In a normal year, that recent resumé would have increased the Clippers’ playoff odds. But in this rough-and-tumble race, Doc Rivers and company have actually lost ground – not to mention fallen six spots and five and-a-half games behind Portland.
Don’t blame the absence of Blake Griffin for his former team’s inability to move up the standings. Los Angeles is 12-6 with Tobias Harris in the lineup, despite losing Avery Bradley and Danilo Gallinari to injury over that timeframe. It’s been next man up for the Clippers, just as it’s been since Patrick Beverley had season-ending knee surgery in November. That hardly means they’ve been immune to the inevitabilities of ever-shallowing depth, though, especially now that Tyrone Wallace, a solid starter when pressed into duty throughout this season, has exhausted the NBA portion of his two-way contract and elected against agreeing to a cheapo long-term deal.
Rookie Sindarius Thornwell has stepped up on the wing since Wallace was forced back down to the G-League in late February, becoming a fixture of Rivers’ rotation and a starter the last five games. He’s overstretched in that role, obviously, limited by a lack of 3-point shooting and explosive athleticism. But the burly second-rounder certainly isn’t killing the Clippers; he has a team-high offensive rating of 117.1 dating back to February 28, per NBA.com/stats, when he got another lasting chance to contribute.
Los Angeles’ other starters have enjoyed similarly dramatic on-off splits. The quintet of Austin Rivers, Lou Williams, Thornwell, Harris and DeAndre Jordan boasts a net rating of +8.8 in that timeframe, and has played 73 more minutes than any other Clippers lineup. The sweet-shooting Harris hasn’t missed a beat with his new team, building on what was already a career campaign by averaging 20.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game on 58.7 percent true shooting during his time in Los Angeles. After a morose January, Jordan is back to his paint-dominating self, too, going for 15.4 points and a whopping 19.1 rebounds per game this month.
So much for trading Griffin, cutting other win-now losses and initiating tank mode. The Clippers, amid a complete roster overhaul and near-incessant tweaks to the rotation, have been rock solid on both ends of late, to an extent that reminds of what Rivers can do with personnel that buys into his all-for-one id. He deserves Coach of the Year consideration; if the West wasn’t so loaded below the very top and above the very bottom, Rivers very well might be the frontrunner.
But that’s the unfortunate reality for Los Angeles, and one the Blazers live in, too. Each of Portland’s next five opponents is a playoff team or one fighting for position, and Terry Stotts’ club will be playing on the second half of a back-to-back on Sunday. The Clippers, in ninth place and a game back of the New Orleans Pelicans in the loss column, need every win they can muster. Jordan is playing some of the best basketball of his career; Harris and Williams might be the most anonymous tandem of flame-throwers in the league; and Rivers has his undermanned team buying in on both sides of the ball, proving that a whole always beats the sum of its parts.
Sunday night could very well be when the Blazers’ streak ends. Should that come to fruition, at least Portland will have done enough to remain fully confident in its playoff chances – something Los Angeles, incredibly, still can’t say despite the impressive extent of its recent success.