With the Los Angeles Clippers on the cusp of their first trip to the playoffs in six seasons, we've asked our crew of Clips' experts five questions to size up the team's postseason chances.
1. What's the Clippers' greatest asset heading into the postseason?
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop editor: Christopher Emmanuel Paul, point guard. The postseason places new demands on a team. Games aren't won with spurts and theatrics, so much as management and control, and there isn't a player in the league more capable of executing those tasks than Paul. The Clippers might win a game or two behind a hot shooting performance by one of their perimeter snipers or Blake Griffin's bullying inside, but it's likely Paul will have his handprint on those exploits, too.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog contributor: That Paul has been pacing himself. Paul sports an insane career playoff stat line of 21.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 11.1 assists -- numbers only Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson were able to achieve during playoff runs. Don't underestimate the benefits of having the best player on the floor at all times.
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog contributor: Forget about the Mamba down the hall -- Paul is the league's most dangerous closer. "Flipping a switch" isn't an empty cliche for Paul, whose shot attempts double and free-throw attempts triple in crunch time. Playoff games come down to a few key possessions -- Paul's brilliant decision making and his eternally maintained dribble are difference makers.
Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com writer: Paul, and it's not even close. He gives the Clippers a chance to win every time he steps onto the court, even when the team is down by 10 or more points late in the game. The Clippers have won an NBA-leading 14 times this season when they have been trailing by 10 points or more, and Paul has emerged as one of the league's top finishers during those games. This season, in the last five minutes of games with the Clippers within five points, Paul has an NBA-high 137 points. Paul's 358 points in the fourth quarter this season is the third-highest total in the league and his 358 fourth-quarter points account for more than 30 percent of all of his scoring. Quite simply, when the Clippers need him most, he plays his best.
Pedro Moura, ESPNLosAngeles.com contributor: Paul. He's their best player and, accordingly, their greatest asset, especially in the postseason. He has the experience and the mentality to succeed in such situations, and he's demonstrated this season to be the late-game leader of this team. The only question is if he'll be able to stay fresh throughout May after an accelerated regular season.
2. What's the Clippers' biggest liability heading into the postseason?
Arnovitz: Since the mortifying loss at New Orleans on March 26, the Clippers have the league's eighth most efficient defense. Their rotations have steadied and their pick-and-roll coverages have been tight (and varied). Dare we say, they've become a downright clever defensive bunch? Will this progress carry into the postseason? Is it enduring or is it a brief fling with success? In their recent wins over the Thunder, the Clippers managed with Nick Young. When dribble penetration becomes a problem, they make a call to the bullpen for Eric Bledsoe. When they need veteran savvy, they go to Kenyon Martin. When they need to change things up, they go to a zone. These are all sensible solutions, but the playoffs demand a coherent defensive blueprint. The Clippers might have found that over the past month -- but we simply don't know.
Foster: Defense. Are the Clippers the strong defensive team they've been in April or the lackluster unit that got pounded during the rest of the regular season? If they get to the second round, the Clippers will likely run into a team with firepower out on the perimeter. Both personnel-wise and schematically, they might not be able to handle that.
Heimer: The top title contenders have two, and often three, go-to scoring options. The Clippers have more like one a half. In the playoffs, defenses will slow the Clippers down by clogging the middle and double-teaming Griffin, meaning they will win or lose based on the collective shot-making of Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Young and Caron Butler. Gulp.
Markazi: The biggest problem is probably the lack of playoff experience on more than half this roster, especially from key players like Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Foye and Bledsoe, who have never played meaningful games past February. Even a guy like Paul, who is telling his teammates what the playoffs will be like, hasn't made it past the second round and Vinny Del Negro hasn't made it out of the first round as a coach. Outside of simply not knowing what the playoffs will be like, the Clippers' two most athletic players, Griffin and Jordan, have shot about 50 percent from the free-throw line this season and their offense has been nonexistent in the second half as of late. Those trends cannot continue if the Clippers are to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Moura: They don't have a big man with a reliable post move against good defenders. Griffin can score, but he can't defend, and he's not overly creative in getting to the basket. Jordan and Reggie Evans are offensive non-factors unless the ball is handed to them next to the basket, and even then it's not a given. Kenyon Martin hasn't found his stroke all season.
3. It's Game 7, score tied, 2:00 remaining. Who should be on the court for the Clippers?
Arnovitz: Goals and matchups will dictate a lot, but all things being equal? Paul, Williams, Butler, Griffin and Jordan when the Clippers have the ball, with Bledsoe subbing for Williams for crucial defensive possessions. There will also be moments that call for Martin's defensive versatility. Herein lies the challenge for the Clippers and Del Negro -- finding two-way combinations that work situationally. Paul will manufacture buckets, but will the defensive schemes be able to stop some of the NBA's most advanced offenses.
Foster: Dance with who brought you: Paul, Foye, Butler, Griffin and Jordan. That unit has seen the most floor time together this season and feels more trustworthy than any lineup that depends on Young to make the right decision or Williams to play defense. Martin is an acceptable substitute for Jordan, but that's it.
Heimer: CP3 and Blake, obviously. Foye has been the team's most consistent shooter for months, and his defense is a huge upgrade over Williams'. Del Negro prefers to trust his veterans in crunch time, with Butler at the 3, and Martin replacing Jordan in the middle. That said, don't be surprised to see the suddenly bouncy Young get key minutes.
Markazi: Paul, Foye, Butler, Griffin and Martin. In the past I might have had Williams in there instead of Foye, but Foye has become a real clutch outside shooter for the Clippers and Williams doesn't move the ball as well. I'd also love to find a spot for Jordan because of what he provides defensively, but he's just too much of a liability offensively and Martin has proven more than a few times this season to be a key player for the Clippers down the stretch. To be honest, though, the only player in that lineup that really matters is Paul because he's the one that will be doing most of the work.
Moura: Paul, Williams, Foye, Griffin and Butler or Young, depending on which is shooting better on that particular day. You have to have a big man on the floor, and Griffin's the Clippers' best, despite his well-documented free-throw limitations. Foye and Williams haven't shot great in clutch situations this season, but they can spot up for a potential pass from Paul -- as can Butler and Young. Paul's a no-brainer.
4. Who in the Western Conference bracket do the Clippers least want to see?
Arnovitz: A healthy San Antonio Spurs team, one that is still peeved about last year's unceremonious exit from the playoffs by an upstart Grizzlies team, and determined not to let it happen again.
You know those defensive questions that linger for the Clippers? A veteran San Antonio team has a knack for turning those into exclamations. The Spurs are masters at working the mismatch, exploiting zones, finding openings along the baseline and making your help look silly. The Clippers can challenge the Spurs' defense, but San Antonio can solve problems on the fly in a seven-game series.
Foster: The Spurs. The Spurs can't defend the Clippers' pick-and-roll even a little bit, but the Clippers return the favor on the other end with their shoddy defense on 3-point shooters. Although the Clippers could win a few shootouts, it's tough to see Del Negro out-coaching Gregg Popovich over a seven-game series, isn't it?
Heimer: Containing the Spurs starts with defending the pick-and-roll and limiting open 3-point looks from the corner -- perhaps the two most glaring deficiencies of the Clips' D. Tony Parker averaged 22 points and 9.5 rebounds against the Clips, who showed no ability to keep him from turning the corner and wreaking havoc in the lane.
Markazi: Well, it looks like the Clippers will likely be stuck in a tough bracket, match-up wise, with Memphis in the first round and possibly San Antonio in the second round. The Clippers won their season series with the Grizzlies, 2-1, but Memphis is a different team now with Zach Randolph. Memphis is also one of the hottest teams in the league, winning four straight and possibly six straight heading into the postseason. The toughest match-up, however, would likely be the Spurs. The Clippers lost the season series to the Spurs, 2-1, but did win their last meeting, 120-108, in San Antonio. The playoffs, however, are entirely different as Paul can attest to after losing to the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs four years ago with New Orleans.
Moura: It might be the Los Angeles Lakers. An on-top-of-his-game Andrew Bynum could reasonably could average 30 points and 15 rebounds in a playoff series against the Clippers, if the past couple of regular-season games are any indication. Ramon Sessions obviously doesn't match Chris Paul, but he makes that point-guard matchup a whole lot more even than it was with Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. If not the Lakers, it's San Antonio, which the Clippers beat only when the Spurs were without Parker.
5. How far can the Clippers advance?
Arnovitz: As far as Paul can carry them and as long as they can get defensive stops when it matters most. The irregularity of the regular season may turn this year's playoffs into a free-for-all, and if that happens, the Clippers could find themselves playing in June. But it also means something as basic as Randolph on the right block could dispatch them in six games. All season long, the Clippers have defied expectations -- both high and low -- which makes this question so difficult to answer and so fun to debate.
Foster: Kevin Garnett would say that anything is possible, but Garnett also played on a great defensive team. There's the rub for the Clippers -- they've got Paul and the high-powered offense, but you just don't make the NBA Finals without being great defensively. Maybe they get hot like Dallas did last year, but it's more reasonable to expect slightly less.
Heimer: "Can" is such a flexible word. A team built around an elite game manager and a corps of streaky shooters can win a title -- or it can brick its way out of the first round. The X factor is Griffin, whose effectiveness in the fourth quarter has been limited by his inconsistency at the charity stripe.
Markazi: If things break their way, the Clippers can make it to the Western Conference finals and possibly even the NBA Finals. As much as I don't see them getting past the Oklahoma City Thunder or the San Antonio Spurs in the postseason, they have won multiple games against both teams this season and have had a couple of winning streaks of at least five games this season. It's not entirely unthinkable that they could win four games against those teams and find themselves playing well into June. Then again, this team has also been inconsistent enough that an early exit in May would not be that shocking either.
Moura: They should advance to the second round, where a likely matchup with Oklahoma City would await. I'd feel very queasy predicting anything past that, although it's certainly possible. Would it be the biggest surprise of the playoffs if they got to the conference finals? Probably not.