For the first time in nine years, the Los Angeles Clippers are closing a regular season knowing this isn’t their last game until next fall. In fact, their home fans will see them sooner than they should have expected.
One night after a loss got them home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, the Clippers face the team they are getting to avoid in that series when they meet the Dallas Mavericks.
By losing 101-95 to Memphis on Tuesday, Los Angeles locked up the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference and gave the Grizzlies the fifth spot.
That result means the Clippers will open the playoffs at home against Northwest Division champion Denver, a team Los Angeles defeated three of four times this season. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, will not have home-court advantage in the first round and must face the Mavericks, owners of the West’s second-best record who are saddled with the No. 4 seed because they’re in the same division as top-seeded San Antonio.
“We wanted to win this game, and we were trying to win it with the guys we had on the floor,” forward Walter McCarty said of Los Angeles losing its way to the sixth seed.
“We were playing down to the wire. If people think we were trying to throw games or whatever, they’ve really got it wrong.”
It’s hard to argue against McCarty, considering the Clippers cut an 18-point deficit down to three in the final minutes before losing. However, Los Angeles did not play starters Sam Cassell and Chris Kaman, and its late comeback attempt came with mostly reserves on the court.
“Everywhere around the league you have teams resting guys that log major minutes,” said All-Star forward Elton Brand, who had 17 points in 22 minutes. “From Miami to Detroit to wherever. Memphis rested Pau Gasol. It’s not that they are trying to lose. They are trying to prepare themselves for the best opportunity in the playoffs.”
Los Angeles is struggling as it heads to the postseason for the first time since 1997, having lost five of seven.
However, most agree the Clippers have a much better shot to win a playoff series for the second time in franchise history—the other came in 1976— because they’re facing Denver as opposed to Dallas.
A win Wednesday will give the Mavericks a franchise-record 61st victory, having also won 60 in 2002-03.
“We have big goals, but it’s no small feat,” said coach Avery Johnson, who played on the 2002-03 team. “I don’t think anyone before the season thought we were a 60-win team.”
The Mavs, though, blew their shot at getting the No. 1 seed in the West by losing games last week at Golden State and Phoenix. They bounced back to defeat Utah 111-95 on Sunday, but the Spurs beat the Jazz the following night to clinch the best record in the conference.
With Dallas fading a bit down the stretch, going 8-7 over the past month, Dirk Nowitzki’s chances of winning league MVP honors may also have gone by the wayside. He’s been held to 22 points or fewer in three of the last five games.
Johnson could decide to sit Nowitzki and some other regulars, or at least play them limited minutes to avoid risking more injuries. Dallas only recently has been able to get its usual starting lineup back on the floor because Josh Howard and Adrian Griffin had been sidelined.
Jerry Stackhouse and Erick Dampier seemed to benefit from being back in reserve roles on Sunday. Stackhouse scored 20 points, his highest total in about three weeks, and Dampier had just his second double-double of the month with 13 points and 12 rebounds.