NBA playoff observations: First-round analysis through the Clippers’ lens
Despite being a game away from clinching a spot in the 2022 NBA postseason, the LA Clippers were one of 14 NBA teams that failed to make the playoffs. As a team one year removed from a conference finals appearance, the Clippers will be expected to at least return to the playoffs in 2023.
But it’s also important for the Clippers to monitor how this postseason develops. All eight of the top four seeds advanced, and none of the eight series required a Game 7. But it was interesting, nonetheless.
From the perspective of covering the Clippers, there was something from each opening series that caught my attention.
No. 1 Phoenix Suns defeat No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans, 4-2
It was the Pelicans who ended the Clippers’ season on April 15 to prevent a rematch of the 2021 Western Conference finals. In Game 6 of that series, the Suns’ Chris Paul tied his postseason career high by scoring 41 points to close out the Clippers.
In Game 6 of the Suns-Pelicans series, Paul ended his original NBA team’s season with the highest-scoring game in league history (regular or postseason) in which a player shot 100 percent from both the field and the free-throw line. He scored 33 points on 14-of-14 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 shooting from the free-throw line.
Paul’s dominance to end the series against the Pelicans wasn’t the only parallel to the 2021 Western Conference finals. Like last year’s Clippers and Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury, the Pelicans went the entire series without Zion Williamson on the floor. But the Suns had to win two games against the Pelicans without Devin Booker. Last season, the Suns took a 2-0 lead against the Clippers with Paul missing both games. The Clippers are looking forward to getting back Leonard next season, but the Pelicans are expecting Williamson back too.
No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies defeat No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves, 4-2
While Paul dominated fourth quarters against the Pelicans, nothing compared to what the Grizzlies did to the Timberwolves in the money quarters. Memphis outscored Minnesota by 62 points in fourth quarters of this series. You’ve never seen anything like it. The Timberwolves led through the first, second and third quarters of each game in this series except Game 2. The Grizzlies won Game 2 and pulled off comeback wins in Games 3, 5 and 6, despite trailing by double digits in the fourth quarters of each game.
What makes this maddening for the Clippers is that they were the team blowing the double-digit fourth-quarter lead against Minnesota in a Play-In Tournament game, not to mention failing to finish three nights later against the Pelicans with an even larger fourth-quarter lead (albeit after the Clippers had overcome a 16-point deficit without Paul George in the lineup against the Pelicans).
Something to pay attention to is how much Memphis flummoxed the Timberwolves when backup point guard Tyus Jones joined Desmond Bane and 2022 NBA Most Improved Player Ja Morant on the floor. That trio helped the Grizzlies outscore the Timberwolves, 108-62, in 39 minutes. And 23 of those minutes came in fourth quarters, where the Grizzlies outscored the Timberwolves, 71-30. In the other 249 minutes of the series, the Timberwolves outscored the Grizzlies by 13 points.
For Memphis, putting Jones on the floor gave them a solid point-of-attack defender who allowed Morant to focus on attacking Minnesota’s foul-prone defense while letting Bane snipe from deep. It raises a question of how the Clippers can get a player like Jones on the floor with Leonard and George (or one of Leonard and George with a driver like Norman Powell or a shooter like Luke Kennard). Reggie Jackson is a solid complementary piece, but he isn’t a traditional point guard in the mold of Jones and is not as impactful a defender; Jackson is a better shooter with more scoring juice.
It’s also convenient to mention that Jones is a 2022 free agent. And, of course, the Clippers are grooming a point guard in 2021 second-round pick Jason Preston.
No. 4 Dallas Mavericks defeat No. 5 Utah Jazz, 4-2
This was a matchup that featured the two teams that the Clippers eliminated in the 2021 postseason. The Mavericks were victims of the Clippers in the last two postseasons, but they finally won their first playoff series since winning the 2011 NBA Finals. Just like the Clippers beat the Jazz in two games with Leonard and two games without him, the Mavericks were able to outlast the Jazz despite not having Luka Doncic for their first two wins in the series.
The blueprint the Clippers showed last spring against the Jazz worked for Dallas offensively. The Mavericks were completely unbothered by Utah’s feeble perimeter defenders, even with Doncic out. Jalen Brunson punished Donovan Mitchell, and Dallas took advantage of Rudy Gobert’s paint-bound orientation to pepper 3s repeatedly.
Dallas averaged 114.8 points per 100 possessions against the Jazz, but that’s not much different from the 112.5 points per 100 possessions they averaged in the regular season. For me, the bigger story of the series was how much Utah’s top-ranked offense failed, right up to the final shot of the series missed by Bojan Bogdanovic. The Jazz went from averaging 116.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season to only 108.4 points per 100 possessions in their series loss to the Mavericks. The primary culprit was woeful 3-point shooting, as the Jazz went from shooting 36 percent from 3 in the regular season (their volume only trailed Minnesota in makes and attempts) to shooting a postseason-worst 27.4 percent on more than 10 fewer attempts per game.
The Clippers went through a similar drop against the Mavericks in last year’s quarterfinals. After leading the NBA by making 41.1 percent of 3s per game in the 2020-21 regular season, the Clippers were held to 35.4 percent from 3 in six games against Dallas. LA finally broke through from deep in a Game 7, making 20 of 43 (46.5 percent), the only time the team made more than 15 3s or shot better than 42 percent in the series.
The Jazz are now at a crossroads that mirrors where the Clippers were in 2017: six straight postseasons without a conference finals appearance. Ironically, it was the Jazz who beat the Clippers in 2017 to begin their playoff run and end the Lob City Clippers, who would trade Paul to Houston the following offseason.
No. 3 Golden State Warriors defeat No. 6 Denver Nuggets, 4-1
The 2019 Warriors were the last team to beat the Clippers in the postseason before the arrival of Leonard and George, and the 2020 Nuggets eliminated that first Clippers team with Leonard and George. This season, the Warriors are back in the postseason for the first time since the 2019 NBA Finals, when they lost to Leonard’s Raptors and Klay Thompson tore his left ACL in the final game of that series.
Thompson is back, albeit after tearing his right Achilles’ tendon and missing a second complete season and the first three months of this one. As seamless as Thompson’s return to action has looked, it can’t be lost that he’s missed an inordinate amount of time to heal from the initial knee injury before being adamant about not returning before the season elapsed from his Achilles injury.
The Nuggets did not have Jamal Murray, who tore his left ACL in April 2021 and has yet to return. Like the Clippers and Leonard, the Nuggets hope to have Murray back, along with a full season from Michael Porter Jr. (season-ending back surgery), to join MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. Murray has been open about his day-to-day struggles with the physical and mental aspects of his recovery, and that’s with undergoing surgery three months earlier than Leonard. It’s something to keep in mind, especially with Leonard being six years older than Murray.
As for the Warriors? They are a version of last season’s Clippers and not just due to the absence and return of Thompson. In 2021, it was the Warriors who finished eighth in the West at the end of the regular season, only to lose two Play-In games and miss the postseason altogether. Of course, the Warriors had two lottery picks waiting for them (their own, plus the Minnesota pick that transferred as part of the Andrew Wiggins-D’Angelo Russell trade from 2020), while the Clippers transferred their pick to Oklahoma City as part of the 2019 George trade.
No. 2 Boston Celtics defeat No. 7 Brooklyn Nets, 4-0
I won’t be as expansive on the Eastern Conference, but it feels appropriate to start on the most anticipated series and the only sweep. The Celtics only beat the Nets by 18 points in the entire series, which was the same differential between the combined points of Boston duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (208 points) and Brooklyn star duo Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (190 points).
This series came down to the stars. And it was common for observers to draw parallels between Boston’s duo of Tatum and Brown and the Clippers’ duo of Leonard and George. Mind you, Boston has already made two conference finals with both Tatum and Brown together and is looking for its first breakthrough to the NBA Finals. The Clippers had a letdown in 2020 after taking a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets, but Leonard and George were peaking together in the middle of last year’s semifinals against the Jazz at the time of Leonard’s untimely injury.
It’s not often that a quarterfinals series is so defining for both teams, but that’s what happens when a preseason title favorite like the Nets fails to win a playoff game. The Nets got Durant and Irving together in 2019, the same offseason that saw the Clippers get Leonard and George. The Nets knew they were taking a loss on the first year due to Durant’s Achilles’ injury, just like the Clippers knew they were in a hole this season due to Leonard’s ACL injury. The Nets had to endure a shortened season for Irving (shoulder surgery) in 2020, just like the 2022 Clippers had to endure a shortened season from George (elbow). Both teams changed coaches in 2020. The Nets were embarrassed this season, especially with the fallout of the James Harden-Ben Simmons trade, and the Clippers were embarrassed in the 2020 bubble.
But it is hard to argue that the Nets are in a better situation right now than the Clippers, who know they have the right head coach in Tyronn Lue and don’t have a fraction of the dysfunction that has afflicted Brooklyn for much of the pandemic.
No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers defeat No. 5 Toronto Raptors, 4-2
Former Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has a long history of stressful playoff series that go longer than expected. Rivers’ teams also have an unfortunate history of critical injuries affecting playoff series or postseasons. Both came into play for Rivers’ 76ers.
Arguably, no winner lost more than Philadelphia did after taking a 3-0 lead. MVP finalist Joel Embiid dealt with a thumb injury that will require surgery, which was revealed after Game 3 in Toronto. Philadelphia failed to sweep the Raptors or close the series at home. The heat applied to Rivers comes based on what has happened in his past, which includes blown 3-1 leads with the 2003 Orlando Magic and with two Clippers teams (2015, ’20).
It turns out that even when the 76ers close a series out, Rivers is still embroiled in backlash. Embiid injured his head and face in Game 6 with Philadelphia’s lead at a point where no significant players needed to be on the floor. It’s a storyline that lingers longer because of Rivers’ past. The last three Lob City playoff teams all had ill-timed injuries that blew up playoff series:
• 2015: Paul injures hamstring, misses first two games of Rockets semifinals.
• 2016: Paul breaks right hand and Blake Griffin injures right quadriceps in Game 4 of Trail Blazers quarterfinals.
• 2017: Griffin misses last four games against Jazz in quarterfinals with a right big toe injury.
And this was after Rivers’ last five Celtics teams had critical injuries after winning the 2008 championship. Rivers has had a lot of unfortunate circumstances to deal with. This is the latest. But sometimes, you make your own luck.
No. 1 Miami Heat defeat No. 8 Atlanta Hawks, 4-1
The Hawks survived the Play-In, leaving the Clippers as the only conference finalist from last season to miss the playoffs. But the Hawks couldn’t handle the Heat despite Miami missing Jimmy Butler for the last game of the series and Kyle Lowry for the last two games. I wonder if 2022 free agent and three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams will continue his career. (This goes for Griffin too, who ended the last two seasons with the Nets.)
No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks defeat No. 6 Chicago Bulls, 4-1
The defending-champion Bucks are the only team in the NBA that has won a playoff series in each of the three pandemic postseasons (since 2020). The Nuggets and Clippers had a chance to join them entering the season. Despite losing Khris Middleton to a sprained MCL and choosing to start Bobby Portis next to MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and center Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka remained outside of Milwaukee’s rotation. Ibaka played only 19 minutes against the Bulls, and they were almost entirely in garbage time of a series that wasn’t close once Middleton’s injury was diagnosed.
Ibaka was the Clippers’ top free-agent acquisition in the 2020 offseason, but back woes that led to surgery in 2021 derailed his tenure. Ivica Zubac re-established himself as the team’s starter by the end of the 2020-21 season, and though Ibaka picked up his player option, he was expendable once Isaiah Hartenstein showed what he was capable of upon Ibaka’s return. The Bucks acquired Ibaka from the Clippers at the trade deadline, with Lopez recovering from his back surgery, and the Clippers acquired Rodney Hood and the since-waived Semi Ojeleye in a four-team deal.
Ibaka has cleared 20 minutes for the Bucks only twice since Lopez returned in March and none in games that Antetokounmpo has played.
(Top photo of Brandon Ingram and Chris Paul: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)