The calendar says the Clippers have until mid-April to be ready for the playoffs.
Yet reality indicates something different: Their readiness and postseason seeding depends on tests that will begin as soon as the All-Star break ends next week.
The haste with which the Clippers, 33-28 and in fourth place in the Western Conference standings, departed Phoenix late after a win Thursday for the break and its promise of relaxation — their readiness to bolt influenced by having the stress of having played a league-high-tying 61 games and the Feb. 9 trade deadline behind them — has nothing on the urgency that will be required when they return to practice.
Their schedule resumes Feb. 24 against third-place Sacramento, followed by a visit Feb. 26 to first-place Denver — a game that doubles as a reunion with recently traded guard Reggie Jackson — and a home game against eighth-place Minnesota on Feb. 28. Then there are back-to-back road games March 2 against ninth-place Golden State and the following day in Sacramento. A five-game homestand begins March 5 against second-place Memphis.
In all, the remaining opponents on their schedule own the second-highest combined winning percentage (.523) in the league, according to Tankathon, which measures strength of schedule.
“It’s going to be playoff preseason basketball,” forward Nicolas Batum said Thursday. “That’s good, though. It will get us ready for our next goal, so I like that.”
The early returns since incorporating trade-deadline additions guard Eric Gordon, point guard Bones Hyland and center Mason Plumlee have been promising, the Clippers saying that their rotations finally make sense with a full-time backup big man to starting center Ivica Zubac.
Plumlee’s presence has dialed down the Clippers’ reliance on smaller, more defensively vulnerable bench combinations while allowing coach Tyronn Lue to resume using three-guard lineups of Gordon, Hyland and Norman Powell, knowing Plumlee’s size can act as an insurance policy against defensive miscues around the perimeter, which remain an issue the Clippers have yet to stamp out.
“We’ve been missing a guy to come in, sub [Zubac] out,” star forward Kawhi Leonard said. “Now it gives Zu a chance to get some rest rather than play those big minutes.”
Said Batum: “I think you can see less pressure on Zu. I think Zu played with more freedom the last two games.”
The sample size remains small, and yet the Clippers are allowing 97 points per 100 possessions when Plumlee plays versus 129.5 when he’s off the court.
“Maybe it’s looked good, but I think there’s even some little things that will get talked about and we’ll get better in the last 20 games,” Plumlee said.
The revamped bench has made Batum feel as though he is now playing alongside four starter-quality players, and the look of the starters and bench are still subject to change, with Lue not ruling out the possibility of starting Gordon, who has already been entrusted to close games.
The coach said 21 games is enough for his team to be prepared for the postseason. It has to be.
“We have no choice,” Lue said.
The Clippers aren’t playing at a championship level yet, said Leonard, a two-time NBA champion. What will reaching that threshold take?
“It’s a feel, just a feel that you have, it’s hard to explain,” he said.
To All-Star forward Paul George, an outstanding issue to reaching that potential is consistency — the variance between the Clippers’ most promising and most troubling still too wide.
“It’s just having an identity, having an identity when that ball goes up, what team you’re going to get on a nightly basis,” George said. “Again, we got everything we need. We got playmaking, we got scorers. We got defensive stoppers. We just had to bring that all together, and find an identity as a group that carry us throughout games. Because again, it’s going to be a long … we plan on having a long postseason. So we got to have an identity that carries us through that long stretch.”
George’s comment that the Clippers have “everything we need” is a notable change in tone. Last week he and starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. made clear that they believed the team needed a traditional point guard, namely Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has yet to have his contract bought out by Utah, but has received permission to hold opening talks with potential suitors.
The team’s discussions with buyout candidates for their backcourt had maintained scrutiny on the current Clippers’ ball movement and passing. Yet in a win Tuesday against Golden State, the team’s first game using their three new players, they tied their season high with 33 assists. Against the Warriors and Suns combined the Clippers averaged 299 passes, 24 more than their season average.
Lue acknowledged it could have been the result of new energy, but also believed it’s sustainable because of Hyland’s instinct to push the ball upcourt and into the paint, Gordon’s experience handling the ball and Plumlee’s knack for advancing the ball quickly in transition.
Lue was typically the loudest voice supporting the traditional-point-guard cause, yet he acknowledged that he’d advised Hyland “don’t try to be a traditional point guard.” His advice: “Score,” Lue said, “but make the right play.”
Hyland had done both late during the win in Phoenix, Lue said, by scoring on a pair of impromptu drives in which he created his own shot.
“Play to your strengths, be who you are, score the basketball, make the right play and he has the pace and speed to get into the paint and make the right play,” Lue said.
Now the question remains whether the Clippers will resume their schedule by getting off on the right foot.