Midway through the third quarter at the STAPLES Center, the score is all tied up 80-80 and the LA Clippers are once again sleep walking through a game they should be dominating.
Against a weakened Philadelphia 76ers team missing both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Clippers look lethargic. Shake Milton is having his way, Tobias Harris is ripping the net and nowhere to be found is the defensive intensity many assumed would be LA's calling card after a summer in which they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, not to mention bringing back Patrick Beverley.
Beverley gets ripped bringing the ball up which leads to a dunk. A missed 3 by George on one end is followed by a drained 3 by Al Horford. Leonard throws it away on a careless pass and then gets beat baseline by Horford for an easy dunk.
Doc Rivers calls timeout. Sixers 87, Clippers 80.
It's at this point when the team many pegged as title favourites entering the season decides to dial it up. Over the next six minutes, the Clippers torched the helpless Sixers on one end and tormented them on the other. Milton and Harris, who had been a combined 18-for-26 up until that point, combined to miss their next six shots while Leonard scored at ease and had his way. Finally focused, the Clippers looked every bit the part of a defensive dynamo many were expecting to see all season.
When the Clippers beat the Los Angeles Lakers on opening night, it seemingly confirmed what many felt in the weeks leading up to the season: Clippers > Lakers.
When the Clippers beat the Lakers on Christmas, it reminded the basketball world of a truth that ran counter to what was reflected in the standings: Clippers > Lakers.
But aside from those two emphatic wins, it's been an underwhelming season.
Between George's nagging injuries that kept him out of the lineup and Leonard's propensity to load manage, the Clippers couldn't establish any consistent identity.
- Falling down by 40 on the road in Milwaukee
- A home rout to the Memphis Grizzlies that garnered some boos by a disappointed crowd
- Blowing a 21-point lead to an Atlanta Hawks team, which at the time had the 2nd-worst record in the NBA
The noise emanating from the Clippers wasn't that of a juggernaut plowing through helpless squads en route to world domination, but rather that of teammates openly questioning their entire approach.
Following that embarrasing home loss to the Grizzlies, forward Montrezl Harrell unleashed more energy in his postgame comments than anyone did in the game itself. "We're not a great team. I think that's what we need to realize and wake up. We're a team that still has to figure out things to win night in and night-out."
Harrell later continued, "Losing by 20-plus points on your home floor, getting embarrassed, and booed by your home fans, that should wake anybody up."
Except the Clippers didn't wake up.
The very next game they gave up 45 points in the first quarter to the New York Knicks before eventually escaping with a 135-132 win. After four days off, the Clippers once more came out lethargic and trailed by double digits entering the fourth quarter against a Golden State Warriors team which started Draymond Green, Glenn Robinson III, Omari Spellman, Damion Lee and Ky Bowman.
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Starting with that loss to Memphis and running all the way through their first game after the All-Star break, a nine-point home loss to the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers had the league's 10th-best record, 11th-best scoring margin, 13th-best offence and 10th-best defence.
They weren't scaring anyone.
It's impossible to have any conversation about the Clippers without talking about health.
Ivica Zubac is the only player who has appeared in every game this season and the team's four best players - Leonard, George, Harrell and Lou Williams - have shared the floor for a grand total of 120 minutes spread over the course of 24 games.
Steve Ballmer spent a good chunk of change to put a contender on the floor and while other teams have missed more games due to injury, none of the other 15 teams projected to make the postseason have lost more money due to injured players than the Clippers, who have shelled out over $26M in salary to players in street clothes.
But championships aren't won during the doldrums of February and March. Missed games matter as it relates to building continuity, but to a certain extent the Clippers knew what they were getting in for. Leonard load managed all of 2019-20 en route to winning the title while George was coming off an offseason in which he had surgery on both shoulders. None of this should really come as a surprise and the fact that the Clippers, now finally healthy, are rolling should send shivers down the spines of every other championship contender.
Since trading for Marcus Morris, the Clippers have now had their intended rotation available for five games. Beverley, George, Leonard, Morris and Zubac starting with Williams, Harrell, Landry Shamet, Reggie Jackson and JaMychal Green. They're 5-0 with an average margin of victory of over 17 points per game.
The next two games against the Rockets and Lakers provides an opportunity for the Clippers to send a message that they remain the team to beat in the Western Conference and that all of the noise is just that... noise.
"I like where we're at... we still have a big growth opportunity."- LA Clippers (@LAClippers) March 2, 2020
🗯@DocRivers on the state of the team at the beginning of March. pic.twitter.com/q2ssKkY3Rx
FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR metric is perhaps the most sophisticated statistical model that's publicly available. It takes into account the two-way strength of players, projected minutes for every player and even player availability. Going by this metric, it's the Clippers - not the Lakers, Bucks, Rockets, Nuggets, Raptors, Celtics or anyone else - that has the best shot of winning it all come June.
That team which unloaded on the 76ers over a furious six-minute stretch? That's the one that no team wants a part of.
There's a swirling narrative that will echo throughout the basketball world next week.
If the Clippers are able to down the Rockets and their all-small tactics and if the Clippers are able to improve to 3-0 against the Lakers, it will be hard to come to any other conclusion than this:
The Clippers have flipped the switch.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.