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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The five Los Angeles Clippers players took the court for what would become a meaningless game on the final night of the NBA’s regular season. Unlike how other championship contenders often show in forgettable regular-season finales, the Clippers indirectly revealed something about their season-long identity.
Once again, the Clippers did not field their full roster. Not a big deal in a 107-103 overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday that had no implications on their playoff standings. When the No. 2-seeded Clippers (49-23) play the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks (43-32) in the first round of the playoffs starting Monday, they will once again have their star duo (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George) and their sixth man of the year candidates (Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell). After handing off head-coaching duties to assistant Sam Cassell, Doc Rivers will once again make decisions on the sideline.
Then, the Clippers will have to answer two questions that will determine their NBA championship fortunes: Will their season-long devotion to maximizing health and rest help the Clippers win their first title? Or should the Clippers feel worried they missed out on valuable on-court time amid players missing a combined 114 games due to injuries and fielding 33 different starting lineups?
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“A coach’s job is always to be worried. So that would be the extent of it. But other than that? I don’t worry too much about it,” Rivers said before Friday’s game. “You just make due with it. We have to get going. We have to get our rhythm during the playoffs as quickly as possible. That would be the only fear.”
It remains a fear that seems hard to quantify both in its severity and significance.
The Clippers spent their restarted season fielding a mixed roster both for calculated reasons and unforeseen circumstances.
The calculated? Los Angeles occasionally sat Leonard for load management and limited George. The unforeseen? Williams, the scoring specialist off the bench, spent 10 days in quarantine after veering from a preapproved trip to his mentor’s funeral to stop at an Atlanta strip club for takeout food. Patrick Beverley, the defensive stalwart, missed four games because of both a personal matter and a strained left calf. Montrezl Harrell, the dependable pick-and-roll scorer and defender, missed the entire season restart amid the recent death of his grandmother.
Rivers plans to integrate all of those players both for a full-fledged practice Saturday and for Game 1 against Dallas on Monday. Though the Mavericks are a seventh seed, they have enough ingredients to pull off an upset with one of the NBA’s brightest young stars (Luka Doncic), a rising talent (Kristaps Porzingis) and a veteran, title-winning coach (Rick Carlisle).
“Obviously not the way you would plan on heading into the playoffs, but it is what it is,” Rivers said. “We just have to make the best of it. We’re hoping by playoff time we have our entire roster. That would be nice. Hopefully we can find some kind of rhythm because right now we’ve been very inconsistent.”
Still, most NBA championship aspiring teams show regular-season complacency before changing their identity seamlessly once the postseason starts. In the Clippers’ case, they have gone 10-1 this season when they play a game without any listed injuries. Even when they did not have a fully healthy roster, the Clippers handled things just fine with Leonard’s load management on his left knee (13 games) and George’s offseason shoulder issues (14). The Clippers bench led the NBA in scoring (50.2 points), ranked second in rebounds (20.3) and finished third in field-goal percentage (46.9%).
In the playoffs, the Clippers will rely more on Leonard and George. Even if their stars experience more health issues or a bad game, the Clippers have plenty of reinforcements in bench scoring, defense, perimeter shooting and inside presence. The Clippers are also the only NBA team to have four players average at least 18 points per game, with Leonard, George, Williams and Harrell.
Despite their uneven play during the season restart, the Clippers still ranked sixth out of 22 teams in scoring (119.1) and shooting percentage (48.9). Beyond their depth, the Clippers ensured those numbers by staying disciplined with training, dieting, communication and film study during the shutdown.
“With talent and depth, you never know what happens in the playoffs,” said Clippers rookie forward Terance Mann, who took advantage of his increased role in the season finale with 25 points and 14 rebounds. “You never know what Doc is going to go with, but I feel like all 15 guys are ready to go. Everyone knows what they are bringing to the table and knows what their job is.”
Unlike other championship teams, though, the Clippers do not exactly have the same equity. Though Leonard won an NBA title last season in Toronto, his teammates do not have the same experience. This also marks the first year Leonard and George have played together with most of a supporting cast that challenged the Golden State Warriors to six games in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Therefore, it was not surprising to see the Clippers show inconsistency during the restart by finishing 15th of 22 teams in defensive rating (113.2), 16th in rebounding (43) and 18th in assists (22.7).
“We definitely got to be in a better rhythm,” Leonard said recently. “Guys have been in and out of the lineup.”
That will not be the case when the playoffs start. For better or worse, the Clippers will then know their true identity.