The Los Angeles Clippers are playing for their playoff lives. With the window starting to close, time running out, and the gap between themselves in 10th and the final Western Conference playoff spot expanding, the Clippers need a desperate push over these final weeks to sneak in. However long the odds at this point, the Clippers should be hungry when they visit the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, even if they’re also a little tired at the tail end of a road-trip.
The Toronto Raptors, on the other hand, are…less hungry. For a few weeks now, they’ve only really gotten up for games against top competition. Against lesser teams, they’ve been content to cruise until they need to flip a switch to win games late. The result has been a league-best offense since the All-Star break that’s helped paper over a noticeably sliding defense. The sense Friday was that the Raptors are finally ready to cut this out – there are just nine games left to get into a groove for the postseason, and the Clippers mark the first of six in a row against winning teams. The Raptors will either turn it on here against a stiffer stretch, or someone in the next few games will serve a reminder that they need to play more than one or two quarters sometime soon.
In years past, this matchup would be a sort of mirror reflection. The Clippers are Raptors West, the Raptors are Clippers East, or however The Great William Lou used to put it. That’s no longer true, as the Clippers are in a transitioning phase. (It is somewhat amusing, though, that the only precedent for a team running a successful all-bench unit in the playoffs is a 2013-14 Clippers team that got bounced in the first round.) Instead, this is a battle between a team possibly lacking the firepower to match their desperation against a team that hasn’t consistently mustered up the feeling of necessity to unleash their own. It’s reductive, but it’s hard to figure how this one plays out until it’s clear what gear the Raptors are coming out in.
The game tips off at 6 on TSN 1/3/4 and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: After a tough loss to Indiana on Friday, the Clippers find themselves 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Is there much confidence left surrounding a potential last-ditch effort to make it in?
Lucas Hann: I think a playoff push is still technically possible–someone will slip, and if the Clippers go on a winning streak and win some big head-to-head match-ups, they can get in. It isn’t a super likely scenario, but it’s a plausible one, at least. The Clippers, as currently constructed, don’t seem very likely to win many of those games, but beginning in this game against the Raptors, two-way contract players Tyrone Wallace and C.J. Williams are eligible to re-join the team, which will help the Clippers’ depth issues. If Danilo Gallinari returns from his injury any time soon, they’ll add one of their main scorers to the mix. So, sure, it’s possible. I think the relief might be that there’s no playoff expectation for the Clippers, given the trades of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the massive amount of injuries they’ve suffered. If they get in, then it’ll be fun to have some playoff action. But if they miss the post-season, they’ll have two lottery picks and a nice cast of returning pieces heading into next year.
Blake Murphy: It’s been a weird year or so for the Clippers. After dealing Chris Paul in the summer and Blake Griffin mid-season, making the playoffs would be a somewhat unexpected ending. Failing that, what can the franchise take away from this season as they plot the direction moving forward?
Lucas Hann: The Clippers have done a lot to try to improve their long-term situation in the last nine months. The result of the Paul and Griffin trades is this: Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and Detroit’s 2018 first (and a pick from Houston that became Danilo Gallinari). Dekker and Boban aren’t really looking like rotation pieces at the moment, but you’ve got five rotation guys and a lottery pick in that group, which is a really big part of the team. Add it to DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, and the Clippers’ own young guys–Jawun Evans, Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace, and LAC’s upcoming pick–and you’ve got a lot of valuable pieces. They’ve used this season as an opportunity to acquire assets and gauge whether their existing pieces are worth keeping around.
Blake Murphy: How has Tobias Harris fit in since coming over? He looks like a nice piece to have around on a reasonable deal for 2018-19 or a potentially attractive trade chip if the team goes another direction.
Lucas Hann: Tobias has been phenomenal, playing both forward positions, sometimes working in tandem with Danilo Gallinari. I think he’s probably the primary building block for this team at the moment–he might be the best player on the team, and at 25 years old he’s significantly younger than the other contenders for that title, like Gallinari (29) and DeAndre Jordan (29). That doesn’t mean that they’re committed to keeping him, as this front office has clearly shown they’ll move anyone for the right return, but right now I think he’s the guy. The way the Clippers are building their team, they’re acquiring assets to wait for the right moment to strike and acquire a superstar–whether it be through the draft, free agency, or a trade–and I think that they might view Tobias as the future #2 guy to that star.
Blake Murphy: Is there a more irrationally fun, one-way guard combo than Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams out there?
Lucas Hann: The thing about Lou is that while he’s not a great defender, he does well enough most of the time that you don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it. But Teodosic is routinely exposed in the most savage ways by opposing guards, who seem to be targeting him for mixtape fodder at this point. On the offensive end, Milos’ spectacular passes don’t come at a high enough rate to be super fun when contrasted with his turnovers and defensive lapses. Milos’ saving grace has been his spot-up shooting, where he’s been a quick-release marksman for the last couple of months after struggling to start the year.
Lou Williams, though. Don’t let that man go left.
Blake Murphy: Boban vs. Bebe for 40 minutes tonight is the best possible outcome for everyone involved, right?
Lucas Hann: Is losing this game the best possible outcome for the Raptors?
C.J. Miles practiced Saturday and was said to be feeling a lot better. He’s still listed as questionable on the injury report, but it sounds like he’ll be available here. Otherwise, the injury report is clear, though every game the rest of the way remains a potential rest game. The Raptors would probably prefer to figure their play out before they start worrying too much about rhythm-disrupting off days, but at least one player has looked of late like he could use a breather. Plus, today is the last day of Nigel Hayes’ second 10-day contract, meaning this is Toronto’s last chance to get a look at him before deciding on his rest-of-season future. They haven’t seen him outside of G League and garbage time action yet, and it’s hard to see that changing if nobody rests.
If everyone plays, you can be fairly certain of the rotation. The only questions are the same ones the team has been sorting through all year: Is there room for Norman Powell as an 11th man, and will Lucas Nogueira steal a few of Jakob Poeltl’s minutes. The answer to the latter has been yes over the last few games. Powell could be at risk of sliding back into his emergency role with Miles back, though Dwane Casey could opt to keep the rotation expanded to keep Powell in the mix and help keep minutes totals down these final weeks.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, (C.J. Miles), Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: C.J. Miles
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown
L.A.. enters pretty thin here, with Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, and Danilo Gallinari still on the shelf. The 10-day contract for Sean Kilpatrick also just expired, and while Tyrone Wallace and C.J. Williams are eligible to re-join the team now that the G League season is complete, they apparently won’t do so until after the Clippers come off this road trip (this is the final game of the four-game swing). That leaves the Clippers with just 11 players, and Doc Rivers has only been using 10 in recent games, leaving Boban Majanovic on the outside looking in.
This far into the season, the Clippers still don’t have a lineup that’s played 150 minutes together. Franchise-altering trades and terrible injury luck will do that to a rotation. The projected starters have only played 45 minutes together across five games (minus-9.9 net rating), though they do have one potent combo when Lou Williams and Sindarius Thornwell sub in together for the starting wings (plus-10.4, 139 minutes). It’s all still unfamiliar here.
PG: Milos Teodosic, Jawun Evans
SG: Austin Rivers, Lou Williams
SF: Wesley Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell
PF: Tobias Harris, Sam Dekker
C: DeAndre Jordan, Montrezl Harrell, Boban Marjanovic
OUT: Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari
Agua Caliente: Tyrone Wallace, C.J. Williams
The Raptors are 8-point favorites with a 225.5 over-under.