There has been no smooth sailing for the Los Angeles Clippers this season.
The Clippers’ 13-11 record in Kawhi Leonard’s absence through the first 24 games was less than impressive, even for a team with such high expectations.
They took two months to settle into a routine, and then they lost their first five games after signing free agent Russell Westbrook.
On Wednesday, the 134-126 victory over the Golden State Warriors gave Los Angeles its fourth consecutive victory.
To what extent will this team’s regular season lineup carry over into the playoffs? Given their recent winning streak, does that make the Clippers the West’s most dangerous team?
The Clippers are the best option available
The idea of a team falling for a trap during the regular season is familiar. Several “trap series” could develop in the Western Conference this year.
The Clippers have had their share of problems this season but haven’t been the only ones. That means a few teams in the conference have underachieved compared to what their talent might have predicted.
Los Angeles’s struggles in dealing with the injuries of LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been well-documented. Adding Russell Westbrook as a sixth man was also a major headache for them. Karl-Anthony Towns’ injury prevented the Minnesota Timberwolves from giving him and Rudy Gobert much chance to gel as a pair. The Golden State Warriors are also in striking distance of the play-in tournament due to injuries and almost inexplicably poor play on the road.
In the coming weeks, if any of those teams, including the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks, suddenly get healthy and find their groove, they could be nightmares for the Western Conference’s top seeds. Nonetheless, no other team in the lower bracket fits that description quite like the Clippers do.
Despite being 31 years old and one of the biggest durability concerns in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard has recently looked like the version of himself that dominated the playoffs in 2019. By Wednesday, he averaged 28.6 points on 54.2% shooting from the field and 56.9% from beyond the arc over his previous 12 games. His defense appears to be suffocating once more.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Los Angeles had a plus-7.6 point differential when he and Paul George shared the court this year. And even those two are the keys to still positionless lineups that can wreak havoc on the defenses of Domantas Sabonis or Nikola Joki, which in turn can wreak havoc on the offenses of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, and which can bottle up Ja Morant’s driving ability.
If Westbrook can keep his shot selection in check, the Lakers have a chance to pull off an upset against any team in the playoffs.
Los Angeles’ Top Gun?
After signing Westbrook after he reached a buyout with the Utah Jazz, the Clippers took a noticeable step back. However, head coach Tyronn Lue and the team have begun smoothing things.
Keeping their two best players healthy has been the Clippers’ biggest challenge (Leonard and George). Although time management will be an issue, the Lakers appear prepared to make a deep playoff run.
At the trade deadline, the team strengthened its roster by adding Mason Plumlee (a backup center to Ivica Zubac) and Eric Gordon (another capable guard). The Clippers, who had previously relied on scorers like Reggie Jackson at the point, benefit from Westbrook’s addition of playmaking.
The Clippers have the depth and talent to bench Westbrook when he becomes a liability, and Lue has the authority to do so if necessary. Westbrook can contribute to the team’s success when he has a good matchup. If he doesn’t make the team, the Clippers have enough talent to succeed without him.
With the Western Conference up for grabs, the Clippers could not be better positioned to win. Leonard’s health has been an issue, but he is still one of the league’s most lethal scorers, and since playoff teams don’t play back-to-backs, load management won’t be an issue.
Any team the Clippers face in the playoffs could have trouble with Leonard, who has also won two NBA Finals MVP awards to accompany his rings.
Overall, the Los Angeles Clippers and Kawhi Leonard are in a good position heading into the NBA playoffs. Despite some early-season struggles and the addition of Russell Westbrook as a wildcard, the team has recently hit its stride with four consecutive wins. NBA Updates: Leonard’s dominant play on both ends of the court and the team’s depth and talent make them a dangerous wild card in the playoffs.
However, the team’s success will depend heavily on Leonard and Paul George staying healthy and Westbrook playing within his role. While other teams in the Western Conference could cause upsets, none fit the description of the Clippers quite like they do. As such, the Clippers could be a team to watch in the playoffs and could go far if things fall into place for them.