For a background of and explanation of Prognostirank's purpose, click here. In a nutshell? It's a reverse-order ranking of all teams left in the playoffs, prognosticating on their playoff prospects and ranking them from worst to best. We then rate -- on a scale of 1 to 5 bullets -- our confidence in each prediction. Five bullets indicate a "very confident" prediction, one bullet indicates a "substantially wavering" prediction. Today's post outlines teams #5 to #3 -- or, the last second round exit and the results of our projected conference finals. See part one for first round ousters and part two for second round ousters.
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TEAM #5: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (Western 4th seed: 56-26, SRS of 6.43)
- Series prediction: Clippers WIN in the first round, LOSE in the second round. ( • • )
- Three most likely end results: 7-7; 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • ), 11-10; 4-3 then 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • ), 3-4 ( • • )
This Clippers team is better than you think it is. It really is. I was incredibly close to picking them to upset the Thunder -- I'm on the fence just enough that I went chalk instead, but the Clippers are a good team, and they're better than most people think. While Clipper fans and general league aficionados have made a habit of noting that the Clipper team that won 17 straight games early this season isn't the Clipper team that's come to play in April, there are two main mitigating factors that make me think that particular storyline is becoming overplayed.
- Paul was injured early in 2013. He's been working his way back to health since, and in recent weeks, he's finally looked as healthy as he was during the streak. The Clippers' general performance has reflected this -- L.A. made a strong push for the three seed with a seven-game winning streak to end the year, and what's more, they haven't lost a game in regulation to a lottery team since March 19th. Yes, the Clippers looked pretty awful for a few months, and lost to lottery teams galore. But they certainly haven't lately.
- The vast majority of L.A.'s trouble lies with the bench, not the starters -- I covered this in passing back in late March, and it's held true since. Their once-dominant bench lineups that led to an overestimation of the team's prospects have been absolutely abysmal in recent months. In the playoffs, a team's bench gets fewer minutes and the Clippers get to return to their starters, who are quite the effective bunch. So, yes -- L.A.'s bench was punching above their weight to start the season, then proceeded to punch well below their weight immediately thereafter. In the playoffs, it doesn't much matter WHERE the bench-as-a-whole punches -- on a team like this, the starters are going 40+.
Additionally, this could just be a gut feeling, but I get the sense that in a playoff scenario the Clippers would match up reasonably well against the Thunder. This may seem like an odd statement to make given that the Clippers were quite literally the only Western team the Thunder swept in the regular season -- the Thunder won 117-111 in OT in OKC and won by scores of 109-97 (no Chris Paul, and L.A. had it within single digits in the last minute) and 108-104 in L.A. And that's true. It IS a pretty weird statement to make, given that the Thunder are 4-9 against the other four best records in the league -- San Antonio, Memphis, Miami, and Denver. But 3-0 against the Clippers, and THAT'S their matchup disadvantage? "Sure, Aaron. Makes sense."
Really, though -- each of the games L.A. played OKC was a close contest, and that was despite the fact that L.A.'s bench was god-awful in every game. That bench won't be playing quite as much in a playoff situation. Chris Paul shot 2-14 in OKC's overtime win. I don't see that happening often in a playoff situation. And even with all those mitigating factors, OKC managed naught but a few close wins? Look -- the Clippers aren't unbeatable, and there's a reason I picked them to lose the series. But this isn't going to be some kind of evisceration. With a healthy Chris Paul and a healthy Blake Griffin, the Clippers run a non-systematic offense that thrives on transition buckets and a cobbled-together pick and roll with whatever parts and pieces Chris Paul can salvage from the refuse around him. The Clippers have a few individual pieces that thrive against the Thunder. Chris Paul traditionally does well against Westbrook, and Blake Griffin operates very well against Ibaka's block-happy ways when he goes up strong and makes it a point to finish. Jamal Crawford is markedly less efficient than Kevin Martin, but Kevin Martin relies on open shots in a Matt Bonner-esque way -- I don't think the gap between Martin and Crawford is going to be nearly as large in a playoff situation as it is in regular season production.
All that said? I still can't pick against a team that won games by an average of 9 points per game, even against an underrated and underappreciated Clippers team that's come a long, long way since the Chris Paul trade.
DEWEY'S TAKE: In D&D alignment terms, this team is neutral-neutral tending towards neutral-evil. Did I get that right, Tim Duncan? I'm sorry, I just don't know the game that well. :sweats: I only bring up alignment because back in the day, Aaron and I came up with an alternative alignment chart for players of a certain position: Solid-neutral-scrappy axis, and a solid-neutral-sketchy axis. This is a quality-independent alignment. You're solid in the first axis if you're like the Spurs or Warriors, getting wins through solid, fundamental play. You're scrappy if you're the underdog getting inexplicable wins. You know, like the Mavs or Jazz (even the Lakers!). Sketch is self-explanatory. Operative example being: Did you ever get a win by whispering a swear in your young impressionable opposing point guard to psyche him out? Then you're sketchy. Why all of this, Alex? Why? Well, because the Clippers are the solid-sketchy team to end all solid-sketchy teams and Chris Paul is their king. Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan... it's like this team took the old, weird Clippers of 3-5 years ago and made them good without fixing any of their ugly, jaw-chomping weirdness. It's wicked sketchy. And can you possibly be any more solid-sketchy than Vinny Del Negro? His name literally translates to "Lawyer of darkness, comically played by Joe Pesci." That's the literal translation. I think this about says it all.