Sam Bernstein staff writer
The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Golden State Warriors last Monday night after pulling off the biggest comeback in NBA playoff history in the second game of their first-round playoff series. Since then, the Warriors have won two games and are very likely to win the next game to advance to the second round of the playoffs. But, the Clippers gave the Warriors their third first-round loss in the last five years. That certainly means something.
This is the Clippers sixth playoff appearance in seven years, a feat only matched by the Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. This Clippers team is the first in the Doc Rivers era to make the playoffs without the likes of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul. NBA fans have been shell-shocked that this Clippers team, who lost their best player this offseason and traded their leading scorer in February, made the playoffs in the first place. Now they’re playing spoiler. How did they get here?
The Clippers had a miracle season this year. While they only finished as the eighth seed, they won 13 more games (48-34) than they were projected to win. Their best month was March when they went 13-2 with losses to two playoff teams (Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks). On this run, they had wins against other playoff teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder. This run in March was especially improbable because it came without Tobias Harris, who was the team’s leading scorer before he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 6.
In the trade that sent Harris to Philly, the Clippers received Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet, as well as a plethora of picks which included the heavily coveted 2021 Miami Heat first-round pick. The Clippers also sent the Sixers Boban Marjanović and Mike Scott, two key rotation players who have helped Philly clinch the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The trade was labeled as a “fleecing” of sorts, as the Clippers received future draft picks and three role players for a top 10 wing in the league; however, this narrative quickly changed. While Chandler has only played 15 games for the team, and Muscala was quickly flipped to the cross-town rival Los Angeles Lakers for Ivica Zubac, Shamet has proven to be a solid starter from the team, excelling from three and providing quality minutes as a combo guard.
The Clippers have thrived off “winning” almost every transaction they’ve made, both major and minor. Their front office has done a great job in recent drafts and have found diamonds in the rough in free agency. While the jury’s still out on 2018 first round pick Jerome Robinson after a disappointing rookie season, the Clippers have gotten a lot of quality talent in other recent picks. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was also a 2018 first-round pick, has had a sensational rookie season, playing all 82 games and starting 73 of those for the Clippers. Gilgeous-Alexander shot just under 50 percent from the field and 37 percent from three and issued about four assists per game. His impact isn’t well represented by the stat sheet, though. Gilgeous-Alexander has played solid defense and has been very effective as the primary ball handler. His skillset is perfect for a coach like Doc Rivers, and he’s proven to be a steal at pick 11. Sindarius Thornwell, a 2017 second-round pick out of South Carolina, has provided quality bench minutes in 64 games. Tyrone Wallace, who was the last pick in the 2016 draft, was called up from the team’s G-League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, in January 2018. Since his addition to the team, he’s also provided quality bench minutes at the guard position. Zubac, the player traded to the Clippers in the Muscala trade, has been great for the team, averaging just over nine points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes per game. JaMychal Green, who was acquired in a trade for Avery Bradley in February, has averaged just under nine points and six rebounds in about 20 minutes since he joined the team.
The Clippers, as previously stated, often find diamonds in the rough. The trade that sent Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets was a blockbuster deal, and the supposed best player, Lou Williams, that the Clippers received has been as good, if not better than expected in his time in Los Angeles. However, the Clippers have found value in the throw-in players they received in that trade. Montrezl Harrell, a second-year center who was coming off a season in which he averaged nine points and three rebounds in 58 games, has blossomed into an incredible role player for Los Angeles, averaging 16 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes. Patrick Beverley, a player who was known to be really gifted defensively but offensively challenged, has been excellent for the Clippers, playing his signature lockdown defense and shooting about 40 percent from three.
One of the biggest pieces for the Clippers’ continued success throughout the season is Danilo Gallinari. Gallinari, a ninth-year forward from Italy, was signed to a massive three year, $64.7 million contract in the summer of 2017. In his first year on the squad, the injury-prone Gallinari hurt both of his glute muscles and ended up only playing 21 games. He came back in 2018-19 with an incredibly strong season, playing 68 games and scoring a career-high 20 points per game. Gallinari also set career highs in rebounds per game and field goal percentage.
While the Clippers have found success for a plethora of reasons, none of this would be possible without the guidance of head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers has led teams to the playoffs 15 times in his 20-year career as an NBA head coach and has only missed the playoffs once in his six years with the Clippers. He has done one of the best coaching jobs of his life after failing to get past the second round with the “Lob City” Clippers. Because of this, he’s not only won over Clippers fans, but he’s reasserted himself as one of the NBA coaching elites. This Clippers team is one of the worst teams to ever make the playoffs, and they did it in a loaded Western Conference, beating out a Los Angeles Lakers team with LeBron James by 11 games. Rivers deserves loads of credit for battling adversity all season and still comfortably making the playoffs, clinching their spot over the ninth-seeded Sacramento Kings by nine games.
The Clippers built a gritty squad that relied on chemistry which resulted in players knowing their role and filling their role perfectly. They built a team that definitely should not be playing playoff basketball, especially without Harris, but they’re here and hungry. The series against the Warriors will continue on Wednesday when the two teams play game five of their first-round series at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. That game will be televised on TNT at 7:30 P.M.