It will take more than a first-round series victory for the Los Angeles Clippers to consider this postseason a success.
After dominating the first part of the season en route to a 32-9 record, the Clips tapered off in the second half, going a pedestrian 24-17. Although Lob City finished the season on a seven-game winning streak, Los Angeles dropped its hold on a top-three seed, finishing No. 4 with a second consecutive postseason matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Winners of the first two games of the series, the Clips have rattled off nine straight victories, and look to have recaptured some of the magic of their undefeated December. The bench is dominant once again, Lamar Odom looks something like he did on the Los Angeles Lakers, and most importantly, the elevated play is resulting in Ws.
However, even if the Clippers continue this trend and eliminate their Memphis rivals, they will have to do some serious damage in the second round, likely against the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder, for this postseason to be considered a success.
Los Angeles is certainly one of the few teams capable of knocking off Kevin Durant and Co., but in all likelihood a matchup with OKC could be the end of this Clipper season.
Beating the Thunder would require the Clips to steal at least one game at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Although Chris Paul fueled a Clipper upset in Loud City last season, LAC dropped its only contest in the Sooner State this year. Granted that loss did come in overtime, in one of the worst performances of Paul’s career.
Moreover, knocking off the Thunder would also require Los Angeles to protect its home court. Even though the Clips are a sterling 32-9 at home this season, they did lose both contests to the Thunder at Staples Center. An upset would not be impossible, but given the Thunder’s dominance over the Clippers, it would be unlikely.
As such, new criteria must emerge for what constitutes a successful postseason run for L.A.’s other team.
If the Clippers have a poor second-round performance akin to their 4-0 shellacking at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, then it will be challenging to evaluate this postseason as a success. If anything, it would be a regression, considering the overhaul of the Clippers’ roster and the integration of Chris Paul after a full training camp and preseason.
A quick elimination out of the second round would suggest that nothing has changed from 2012 to 2013, except for home-court in the first round.
A second round is no guarantee either. If the Clippers end up blowing this series to the Grizzlies, then this postseason will be marked a failure.
What if the Clippers had maintained their pace with the Denver Nuggets and locked up the No. 3 seed? Other than a first round matchup with the Golden State Warriors, a comparably unfavorable matchup to the Grizzlies, then there is little difference between the No. 3 seed and the No. 4 seed.
Both No. 3 and No. 4 concede home-court advantage in the second round, presuming their are no upsets of the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. Although a higher seed might be better for morale, a second-round matchup with the Spurs might be even more unfortunate than one with the Thunder.
It is almost a pick your poison type of situation. Start the second-round on the road in Oklahoma City and have CP3 try to chase around Russell Westbrook on the perimeter, or face the Spurs’ precise machine ready to methodically eviscerate opponents.
Clipper Nation might point out that if the team upheld even a semblance of its early season pace, then the Clippers might have solved the Thunder-Spurs crisis by finishing with the top seed in the conference. A No. 1 seed would have ensured avoiding a date with either Oklahoma City or San Antonio until the conference finals.
The cruel reality of the cartoonishly competitive Western Conference is that only two teams can make the third round. As impressive as this season has been for Lob City, the Clips are not in the class of either the Spurs or the Thunder.
Consequently, Clippers’ brass and Clipper fans should assess the success of this postseason from a nuanced approach.
If the Clippers can steal a road game from the Thunder, then that constitutes progress. If the Clippers can defend their home-court in the second round, then that also constitutes progress.
The Clips might not be able to knock off Oklahoma City in the second round, but they can certainly put up a fight. There are no moral victories in this league, but a competitive six to seven-game second-round series is something that Clippers' management and its fans can view as a success.