In the last week, the LA Clippers have not only snagged a guaranteed playoff spot, but they’ve also secured homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason. The farthest they can fall is the no. 4 seed, which means, as of Sunday morning, their possible first-round opponents have been essentially whittled down to just three teams: the Dallas Mavericks (currently the no. 5 seed), the Portland Trail Blazers (currently no. 6) and the Los Angeles Lakers (currently no. 7).
Prior to Sunday’s matchups, these three teams are all within two games of each other. Any one of them could end up as the no. 5 or 6 seed, with the Clippers two most likely spots being either the no. 3 or 4 seed. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how each of these teams match up against the Clippers, and determine who they should most want to face in round one.
Old friend Luka Doncic is still a menace. The basketball boy-genius, now in just his third year, has led the Mavericks to another great offensive season (though not quite as good as last year’s all-time great team—114.3 offensive rating this year compared to 115.9 last year). Clipper fans remember all too well how spectacular he was in last year’s first-round matchup, averaging 31 points, 8.7 assists and 9.8 rebounds over the course of the six-game series. His buzzer-beating step-back game-winner to seal game 4 will live on in infamy, though the Clippers would go on to win the series in six games.
This year has been a bit of a mixed bag for Doncic in terms of incremental improvement. No one expected him to make another monumental leap like he did from his rookie year to his sophomore year, but he has regressed slightly in certain aspects this season; his free throw rate, three-point attempt rate, rebounding rate, assist rate and box +\- have all dipped slightly compared to last season. However, his true-shooting percentage has increased, thanks to an uptick in his three-point shooting (35.5% compared to 31.6% last year).
Doncic is going to get his numbers. The Clippers were unable to stop him last year in the playoffs, and he’s averaging 30.3 points (on 47.8/37/83.3 shooting splits), 11 assists and 8.3 rebounds in Dallas’ three games against the Clippers this season (factoring in LA’s historic blowout loss to the Mavericks at the beginning of the year). All LA can hope to do is slow him down by forcing him into difficult shots. The Clippers no-doubt have the personnel, as they are loaded with lengthy wing defenders who can keep up with Doncic’s combination of speed and strength.
A wrinkle to consider should LA draw Dallas is the health of Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis was unable to complete last year’s series due to a torn lateral meniscus, which kept him sidelined for the final three games. The Mavericks went 1-2 with Porzingis playing, but he was effective, averaging 23.7 points and knocking down 51.9% of his 5.7 three-point attempts per contest. He was able to spread the Clippers’ bigs out beyond the arc, giving Doncic room to operate.
Porzingis is currently sidelined with knee soreness, but Head Coach Rick Carlisle “expect[s] him to play regular-season games at some point,” meaning he’ll potentially be healthy to start the postseason.
The elephant in the room is obviously the Clippers’ 124-73 blowout loss to the Mavericks back on Dec. 27, which is widely considered to be the worst loss in Clippers franchise history. It is obviously such an outlier that one might consider disregarding it entirely, particularly given LA’s offensive prowess in their other 67 games, but it cannot be fully ignored. Dallas lost to LA by 10 in their next matchup, but they won by 16 in the game after that. They are an offensive force to be reckoned with, and though they rank in the bottom half of the league defensively, they have two stout wing defenders in Josh Richardson (who was not on the team last year) and Dorian Finney-Smith that can at least make George and Kawhi Leonard work.
Portland Trail Blazers
If one were to decide the Clippers’ best matchup based purely on regular season success, Portland would be the obvious choice.
The Clippers swept the season series against the Blazers this year, going 3-0. Damian Lillard was unavailable for their final game, but in the first two matchups, the Clippers did a fantastic job of slowing him down. LA has held Lillard to 15.5 points per game, allowing just five (5!) made field goals in 28 attempts over two contests. The Clippers elected to trap Lillard from basically anywhere beyond the halfcourt line for fear of his pull-up three, sending two defenders at him and forcing the ball out of his hands early in possessions. LA has essentially asked any other Blazer to beat them, sometimes in 4-on-3 recovery situations no less, but the trap rarely came back to bite them in those two contests. Patrick Beverley, now back and seemingly healthy for LA, also did a great job staying in front of Lillard in one-on-one situations.
While this is promising, George made it clear after their last win against Portland that regular season success doesn’t necessarily translate to the postseason.
Beyond just the Clippers’ individual success against the Blazers, they also hold the lowest net rating of any of these teams (+1.4, compared to the Mavericks (+2.4) and Lakers (+2.6)). The Blazers have out-performed their net rating thanks to stellar clutch play from Lillard—the Blazers carry an insane +28 net rating when Lillard is on the floor in the last five minutes of games within five points or fewer, and he holds a 71.5 true-shooting percentage during those minutes.
Early on in the season, the Clippers were given quite a bit of flack for their own poor performances in clutch situations. However, they’ve since righted the ship to some extent. In 32 games that were within five points with five minutes remaining, the Clippers have won 16, going .500, tied for no. 14 in the league. It’s solid, though below other contenders’ clutch records (Philadelphia, Phoenix, Brooklyn, Portland, Utah, Denver, the Lakers and Dallas all rank in the top 10 in clutch win percentage).
You don’t have to remind Paul George about Lillard’s clutch gene. If the Clippers do draw the Blazers, they should hope to avoid close games at all costs. LA is the better team on paper, but Lillard seems to have some sort of unquantifiable super power when games come down to the wire.
Los Angeles Lakers
They’re still the champions. Despite major injuries to their two superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, which have dropped them down far enough in the standings that they are now in danger of falling into the Play-In Tournament, the Lakers are still a title contender that many viewed as the favorite entering the season.
They are also the team that the Clippers have seen the least of this year, at least at full strength. Though the Clippers swept the season series against the Lakers (3-0), LeBron James only played in one of those games, and Anthony Davis played in two, though he left nine minutes into the second contest due to back spasms. For what it’s worth, in the one game where all four LA stars were healthy, the Clippers’ duo outscored the Lakers’ duo 59-40, though deciding a potential playoff matchup off of these four players’ scoring totals from one game would be reductive.
Ultimately, a potential Lakers-Clippers first round matchup will be decided by, well, matchups. How do the Clippers combat the one-of-a-kind talent that is Anthony Davis, particularly when Frank Vogel elects to play him at center? Lue had Marcus Morris Sr. guard Davis in their most recent matchup, and Davis was held to just 2-9 shooting in nine minutes, but that was when he was playing alongside another big in Andre Drummond (and with no pick-and-roll partner due to injuries). If the Lakers go small, would it be in the Clippers’ best interest to match them and play a [insert point guard]/George/Leonard/Nicolas Batum/Morris lineup, which hasn’t seen much playing time this season? Will the Clippers be destroyed on the offensive and defensive glass in those situations?
There are so many question marks in this hypothetical series, and that’s without tackling the LeBron James riddle that has befuddled the entire league for the better part of two decades. When fully engaged, there are few players in the NBA that a team would rather have over Leonard and George to guard James (they both have quite a bit of experience checking him over the years), but those two would also be expelling quite a bit of energy on the offensive end in this series. It seems that the consensus strategy from James’ playoff opponents has been to drop back in pick-and-roll, allow him his jump shot (he’s shooting 36.6% this season on threes—the fifth-highest rate of his career, and on a career-high number of attempts), and cut off his drives at all costs.
A drop system would work well for the Clippers if they hope to keep Ivica Zubac (or, hopefully, Serge Ibaka) on the floor. But if James starts hitting his jumpers and the Clippers are forced to switch, their bigs will be left out on an iso-island to die.
If the Clippers view the Lakers as their biggest threat in the West, it would arguably be better to face them early on. James is currently sidelined once again with his ankle injury (though he will reportedly return to action this week), and Dennis Schroder is still out due to health and safety protocols. The longer the Clippers avoid them, the more time the Lakers will have to get healthy and gain momentum.
Order of preference: 1) Trail Blazers; 2) Mavericks; 3) Lakers
While the Blazers have a stud in Lillard, he’s arguably the least threatening of all the superstars in this pool; no disrespect to him, but his lack of size makes him just a bit more solvable than point-forwards like James and Doncic. Beyond stars (CJ McCollum at least deserves a mention), the Blazers lack the depth that the Mavericks and Lakers have, and this lack of versatility means they can really only play one way.
The Mavericks are slightly more dangerous, and Porzingis will no-doubt be an X-factor, but at least LA can walk into a first-round series against Dallas knowing they’ve beaten them before. Doncic is terrifying, and proved last year that his game translates in the playoffs, but the Clippers can live with his heroics if it means they can limit his supporting cast (Dallas ranks second in the league in bench field goal percentage, trailing only the Lakers).
Ultimately, the Lakers remain the scariest, if for no other reason than they are the most unknown. If what George said is true, and the regular season is not indicative of postseason success (particularly when factoring in injuries), then the Clippers should just default to: they’re the defending champions, they have two of the top ~six players in the league when healthy, and they can play a style that is least complimentary to the Clippers’ defensive strengths compared to the other two options.
Avoid them, if possible.