Are We Sleeping on the Clippers?
Is it possible for the team with the second-best record in the Western Conference to be flying under the radar? Sounds stupid right? There won’t be many times in your life that you can say a 44-20 team, the fourth-best record in the league, who has Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, is quietly going about their business.
In all honesty, for the majority of the offseason and 2019-2020 regular season they haven’t been. They landed the reigning Finals MVP in Leonard during free agency and made a historically stacked trade with Oklahoma City for George, giving up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five first-round picks.
But I want to focus on the last eight games before the league went into lockdown due to COVID-19. The Clippers won seven of those eight, their only loss coming against the cross-town rival Lakers 112-103, a game that they led at half-time and only trailed by seven with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth.
In that run they beat Memphis, Phoenix, Denver, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Houston and Golden State by an average of 18 points. They recorded a defensive rating of 100 or lower in four of those games and came within six of their season of average of 106.6 on three occasions. They kept teams to an average of 30.5 percent from the three, including lows of 25.9 percent against Memphis, 26.5 percent against Phoenix, and 16.7 percent against Houston. Only Philadelphia shot over 40 percent from the three during that stretch. On the season, the Clippers rank third for opponent field goal percentage with 43.6 percent. Only four times during that run did teams shoot above that, one of which was the Lakers who only shot 44.8 percent from the field.
These defensive stats probably aren’t surprising anyone, we have known their capabilities on that end of the floor all season. Having Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverly means you are always going to be okay defensively. But the offensive end and the flow they had gotten into during the stretch was what went under the radar. Doc Rivers discussed it in an Instagram live during lockdown and looking back, they had slowly been building some great continuity with a full squad. They had shown glimpses throughout the season and many experts still tipped them to make the Finals with a healthy team, but it wasn’t until these eight games that we actually witnessed it on a consistent basis. I, like many others, seemed to miss it in real-time, it didn’t even seem to become a discussion point.
During the stretch, the Clippers put up 119 points a game, shooting over 50 percent in four games and only going under 40 percent once where they shot 39.5 percent against the Lakers. All of this came against six playoff teams, five of whom have a top 15 defense.
Fast forward to July and as the league readies itself to enter the bubble in Orlando, the Clippers are arriving rested, healthy and confident. Although only a very short sample size, being able to play consistent games with a full squad, learning each other’s traits and getting used to playing with different guys gives them confidence. Paul George is the perfect example. Although he didn’t play great during the stretch, only averaging 17.6 points, four rebounds, and close to four assists a game, he is going to gain a lot of belief from those games. He’s had a decent sample size of playing with Kawhi and role guys like Lou Williams, Harrell, and Beverly. Now he comes to Orlando healthy, rested and more comfortable in how he fits into this team.
Now does all of this correlate into them winning the NBA Finals? The answer awaits us in Orlando, but as one of the more stacked teams in the league they have been able to quietly slide into the bubble rested, healthy, and the in-form team of the league.