The Los Angeles Clippers were supposed to be very good this year. They were free of the Blake Griffin Punching Dudes stories, brought back their same core of players, and started the season 14-2. Things were good.
Over the next 53 games - long enough to make you question which set of numbers was a fluke - the Clippers went 26-27. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul each missed about 20 games, Doc Rivers' rotations got a little screwy, and LA struggled to find themselves as a team. It looked - once again - like the Clippers would be an early exit from the playoffs.
Blake Griffin returned to the lineup before the All-Star break, and while he hasn't been the Blake that we came to love, he's scoring 22 a night and shooting about 38% on three threes per game (the Blake that we came to love would be scoring 22 a night on nine dunks and four free throws). A month later, Chris Paul came back and people thought that maybe the Clippers would get back to their winning ways.
They went 9-9 over the next 18 games and continued to push the "Chris Paul is allergic to conference finals" narrative.
Then something clicked.
Starting with a March 18th win over the (resting) Cavaliers, the Clippers have caught fire on a 10-2 stretch, including wins in six straight. While a few of these have been wins over weaker opponents like the Knicks, Lakers, and Suns, they've also had impressive victories over San Antonio, Utah, Washington, and most recently, Houston.
The Clippers are peaking at the right time. They're currently tied with the Jazz for the 4th spot in the western conference and those two will be facing off in the first round of what will be a knock-down, drag-out, who-can-play-better-interior-defense matchup. LA holds the tiebreaker over Utah thanks to winning three of their four regular season contests, meaning that the Clippers will most likely have home-court advantage in round one.
While the Jazz play a deliberate, low-scoring style, Los Angeles has been scoring like mad. In those past ten wins, the Clippers have scored under 108 just once, and that was against the Spurs. The trigger for this offense, of course, has been Chris Paul. CP3 has been penetrating, finding the right man, and drifting to open spots when necessary, even if the rest of the team hasn't quite spread the floor after his drive.
On this particular play, he started the motion by driving, offered up a near assist if Redick had fired it up, then ended with a three of his own. Paul is averaging 25 points and 10.5 assists in this six game winning streak. The Clips have also won these six games by an average of almost 13 points. If the Clippers can beat the Spurs - in San Antonio - they're not far off from beating anybody.
Unfortunately, while it looks increasingly like they'll be able to get past Utah in round one, the Warriors loom. It would take a herculean effort - or a substantial injury - for even the best version of the Clippers to take down Golden State. In the Clippers' four games vs. Golden State this year the Warriors won by 11, 13, 17, and 46 points. Not exactly a vote of confidence.
Still, stranger things have happened in the NBA. If nothing else, the first round series between the Gobert/Hayward Jazz and the Jordan/Griffin/Paul Clippers has the potential to be a classic. Two of the four best rebounders in the NBA, the best point guard of the past 20 years, and a couple more top 15 players in one series? Please and thank you.