While the Nuggets have been playing win-two-lose-one for the last few weeks as they slog towards the playoffs, the Clippers have been red hot, winning 14 of their last 16 games. And thus, much is on the line when these two teams meet at Pepsi Center on Wednesday night as the Clippers play for a three-seed in the Western Conference playoffs and the Nuggets try to improve their chances of landing sixth. Could this be a playoff preview?
Denver: 34-27 (19-12 at home)
Streak: Won 2
Clippers: 38-23 (15-14 on the road)
Streak: Won 4
Season Series: 2-1 Clippers
Opposition's Take: Clips Nation
On March 22nd the Los Angeles Clippers dropped their third straight game and their eighth in 12 tries. At the time, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that Clippers' head coach Vinny Del Negro had "lost the team" and that the players would no longer play hard for him. Well, a funny thing happened since Del Negro "lost the team." The Clippers won six straight after that report and 14 of their last 16. They have become - quite simply - the hottest team in the Western Conference.
So hot, in fact, that the Clippers might overtake their fellow Staples Center tenant - the Lakers - and land third in the Western Conference.
I've never quite understood the hatred for Del Negro among many NBA fans and pundits. While coaching the Bulls, it seemed as though the media and the fans were ready for Del Negro to be fired from the day he took the job. And yet, Del Negro coached a young, not-very-talented Bulls squad to a thrilling seven-game series against the Celtics in 2009. One year and a tough playoff loss to the Cavaliers later, Del Negro was gone.
Del Negro took over the Clippers last season and coached them to an unremarkable 32-50 record despite having the best NBA rookie (in Blake Griffin) that we've seen in years. But this season, Del Negro has coached the Clippers into the Western Conference's top-four. A place this moribund franchise has never been.
Now granted, Del Negro has more firepower to work with than he has ever had before. A team with Griffin plus Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups (before he got hurt), Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Mo Williams, Nick Young and Randy Foye should be a top-four squad. But give Del Negro credit for meeting expectations rather than underachieve as so many Clippers coach have done before him. Most impressively, Del Negro's Clippers have beaten the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder twice in the past four games, one away and one at Staples Center. Late in the season or not, this Clippers team has really come together.
Speaking of coming together late in the season, how 'bout our Denver Nuggets? Winners of four of their last five (it's no 14 of 16 but we'll take whatever we can get at this point), the Nuggets seem poised not only to make the playoffs but inch up into the sixth-spot while the Dallas Mavericks flounder down the stretch and the Houston Rockets' ominous schedule will likely relegate them to eighth - or out of the playoffs altogether. Let's go Nuggets!
Against the wishes of the fans - and probably not in the best interest of the team long term - Nuggets head coach George Karl (he of 918 more wins than his coaching counterpart on Wednesday night) has been sticking with his veterans to close out games and somehow pulled off crucial back-to-back wins against the Rockets on Sunday and Monday nights. Thanks to those two wins - and the Mavericks gut-wrenching triple-overtime loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday - the Nuggets are playing for sixth while the Clippers pay for third.
Not that the Nuggets want anything to do with the Clippers come playoff time, however. In their first meeting this season - at Denver in late January - the Clippers beat the Nuggets 109-105 in a game that the Nuggets never seemed to be in control of. In their third meeting (in late February), the Nuggets lost at Los Angeles 103-95 ... and the game was never that close. I know what you're thinking: didn't the Nuggets wallop the Clippers 112-91 in Los Angeles between those two games? Yes, they did. But the Clippers were playing the second of a back-to-back, their fourth game in five nights and had just beaten the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Thunder and Jazz leading up to that game.
Point being, these Clippers are no longer the NBA's laughingstock and will look to prove so again on Wednesday night as they go for their fifth straight victory.
SCOUTING THE CLIPPERS
-Blake Griffin: The aforementioned Griffin continues to delight NBA fans everywhere, even those who don't root for the blue and red squad from Los Angeles. Griffin is good for highlight-reel dunks, but beyond that aspect of his game he remains a beast on the boards, in the paint and has improved his jump shot. His only glaring negative is that he is Shaq-like from the free throw line where he is "shooting" 52%.
-Chris Paul: It's no accident that the Clippers best season in franchise history coincides with Paul's arrival. Simply put, he's one of the top three point guards in the NBA alongside Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. Take your pick.
-Kenyon Martin: K-Mart has been talking shit about Karl and the Nuggets ever since he left Denver last summer. But his play this season is showing why the Nuggets weren't anxious to re-sign him: 5.2 ppg on a career-low 43.5% shooting from the field.
-Bobby Simmons: After getting grossly overpaid in 2005 and then bounced out of the NBA altogether in 2010, Simmons somehow is back and is shooting a career-low 32.5% from the field for his current (and once former) team.
I'm not sure if the Nuggets are better off playing the Clippers or the Lakers in the playoffs - they likely have little chance of beating either team. But they have no chance of beating the Thunder or the Spurs, so it behooves Denver to pick up a few more wins and improve their playoff positioning. And that begins by trying to beat the Clippers on Wednesday night.