With three games remaining and their championship aspirations still sky-high, the Clippers have two basic priorities when it comes to closing out the regular season: securing the Western Conference’s third seed and staying healthy.
“We’ve got to win these games, but make sure we’re still healthy as well,” head coach Ty Lue told reporters before L.A.’s 115-96 win over the Raptors on Tuesday.
But if the Clippers truly expect to make a run at the title, they will likely need to improve on one of their specific shortcomings, one that has hurt them throughout the season and will no doubt present itself in the playoffs as the overall intensity skyrockets and competition becomes fiercest: winning close games.
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Faltering in the Closest Games
Over the course of the season, the Clippers have played 19 games during which they were either leading or trailing by two points or fewer with under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. And in those 19 instances, they are 7-12.
Surely, that’s an unacceptable record for an organization looking to win their first title in 51 years of existence, but given their stats within those parameters, it seems almost lucky that the Clippers won as many as they did.
4th Quarter; Final Five Minutes; Leading or Trailing by Two Points or Less:
- Defensive Rating: 133.3 (30th in the NBA)
- Net Rating: -13.0 (25th)
- Turnover Percentage: 16.7% (27th)
- Off. Rebounding Percentage: 25.0% (25th)
- Def. Rebounding Percentage: 54.1% (29th)
- Overall Rebounding Percentage: 43.9% (27th)
The important factor to look at here is league rank. Being 30th, or last, in defensive rating at the end of tight games means that, more often than not, opposing teams have been able to score at will in the closing minutes, thereby forcing the Clippers to generate offense at a very high clip just to keep pace. And while the Clippers have been good at that — they are 4th-best in offensive rating under the same parameters — it hasn’t been nearly enough, resulting in a 25th-worst net rating of -13.0.
If the ratings help explain the Clippers’ 7-12 record, the other categories listed help explain why. Their miserable turnover percentage indicates a propensity for turning the ball over in crunch time, reducing possessions on their side of the ledger while giving opponents more crucial looks and oftentimes easy buckets.
And the Clippers aren’t doing themselves any favors on the boards either, allowing opposing teams numerous second chances (defensive rebounding %) while not getting the same number of opportunities on the other end (offensive rebounding %).
If ever there was a recipe for disaster at the end of close games, it would certainly include turnovers and giving up second-chance opportunities, but it’s not all bad news for Clipper Nation when it comes to nailbiters and the upcoming playoffs.
Across April and March, in games where the score was within two points with five minutes or less remaining in the fourth quarter, the Clippers are 3-1. Their defensive rating, which, as mentioned, is last in the league for the season in this specific scenario, is 19th since April 1, and their net rating ranks 2nd over that same span.
Though it’s tough to put a finger on the exact reason behind this reversal of fortune, it could have something to do with the trade for Rajon Rondo at the end of March. Rondo, who was brought in primarily for his past playoff heroics and knack for controlling the pace of games, has been a stabilizing force for the Clippers, giving the second unit and often the end-of-game lineup a reliable ballhandler and playmaker, while providing smarts on defense.
Who Needs Overtime?
At this point, it would be a fair question to ask how the Clippers have fared in overtime games this year. But it is a question without an answer.
The Clippers are the only team in the league not to have played an overtime game this season. In fact, if the Clippers can avoid extra minutes over their last three matchups, it will be the first year in franchise history they haven’t played at least one overtime game.
Whether or not that will mean anything in the playoffs remains to be seen (it never hurts to test one’s mettle before the real battle begins), but for comparison’s sake, the last team to go an entire NBA campaign without visiting overtime were the 2011-12 Phoenix Suns. That season, like this one, was shorter than usual, due to a players’ strike, and the Suns narrowly missed out on making the playoffs after losing three straight to finish the season.
Their last win of the year came against the Clippers, who missed a three-pointer at the buzzer to tie it up. Another tight game down the drain.
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