After a three-game losing streak set back their chances at landing among the Top 2 seeds in the West, the Clippers have bounced back with three wins in four games, playing outstanding defense in that stretch—99.0 points per game allowed, along with 42.9% shooting and 32.1% 3-point shooting. The Clippers have been able to maintain a one-game lead over the Nuggets for the No. 3 seed in the process, and have already sealed up homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite injuries and inconsistency, the Clippers are 46-23 and their .667 winning percentage is fifth in franchise history.
These positive signs are being reflected in the team’s future projections on the data-crunching website, Fivethirtyeight.com. In fact, the site gives the Clippers a 35% chance of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in team history and a 21% chance of winning the championship.
That makes the Clippers the favorite in the Western Conference, just ahead of the Jazz (34% chance of reaching the Finals and 20% chance at a championship) but No. 2 overall behind the East’s Philadelphia Sixers, who have a 23% chance of winning the NBA title.
Skepticism of Clippers is Stubborn
As well as the Clippers have played this season, there does remain some healthy skepticism around their prospects, especially after last season’s monumental second-round postseason collapse to Denver. The Clippers, of course, had a 3-1 series lead on the Nuggets, only to drop three straight games and blow a shot at the Lakers in the conference finals.
Statistically, the Clippers have been the No. 2 team in the league in net rating, outscoring foes by an average of 6.3 points per 100 possessions this year. The Jazz lead that category, at 9.0 points. Utah ranks fourth in offense and third in defense, while Phoenix is seventh in offense and sixth in defense.
The Clippers have the third-rated offense and seventh-rated defense—with the Jazz and Suns, they’re the only NBA teams to rank in the Top 7 in both categories.
Still, there is doubt. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on his Hoops Collective podcast this week:
The Clippers have, generally, played pretty damn well in the second half of the season considering the challenges they’ve had. … I would say that, if last season didn’t happen and I was looking at this whole field, I would probably pick the Clippers because I just don’t know if the Jazz and Suns can win three series. I would probably pick the Clippers a little bit ahead of the Jazz, they’re very close in my mind. If LeBron and AD were fully healthy and I knew that, I might pick the Lakers. But I can’t bring myself with the Clippers, I am so scarred by what happened last year. And this year, even though they have had a lot of positive things happen, they have still stubbed their toe enough that I am just not there with it.
Serge Ibaka Nearing Return for Loaded Clips Rotation
That is fair. But there is more reason to be optimistic about the Clippers—they are, for one thing, getting healthy. Point guard Patrick Beverley rejoined the starting five on Tuesday, his fourth game since returning from a broken bone in his left hand. Kawhi Leonard remains on a minutes restriction but has played the past five games for the Clippers.
And there is hope that center Serge Ibaka, out since March with a back injury, will make an appearance sometime in the final three regular-season games.
“That’s our goal,” Lue said on Tuesday. “He’s progressed and he’s rehabbing right now on the road, so hopeful we can get a chance to get him a couple games before the season’s over and just try to see how he feels and how he looks on the floor.”
That is one final key point on the 538 numbers. According to the site, at full health, the Clippers’ rating is a 1,741. The team has not had that luxury in months, but it could in the playoffs—and look out if that is the case.