In every team's season, there must be a stretch of games that will either kill it or make it stronger. Beginning Monday the Clippers play at Memphis, Houston and Minnesota over the next four days before returning home for the Wizards on Saturday. But that's just a warmup. Over the next 13 games after that, they have 11 on the road and the only two home games are the second night of back-to-backs. Good times.
It's not all bad for L.A.'s other team. The Clips' post-All-Star break sched is heavy on home dates and short on travel with only two games outside of the Western Conference. Also, if any team is set up to grind through this winter death march, it's the Clippers. With a bench that goes 10 deep -- and is still missing two crucial pieces in Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill -- they have a two-platoon system that should be able to withstand the long nights.
Say what you will about Vinny Del Negro's coaching acumen, but no one on his roster plays more than 33 minutes and only Chris Paul and Blake Griffin average more than 30 a night. One of an NBA coach's main tasks is finding the right combination of players and putting them on the floor at the same time. All five of Del Negro's most frequently used lineups have a positive net efficiency rating.
The feeling here is that if any team is going to prevent a Heat-Thunder Finals rematch this June, it's going to be the Clippers. Road trips like this have a way of laying the foundation for that playoff mettle, or exposing structural flaws.
To the games:
MONDAY: Clippers at Memphis, 8 p.m. ET
(Editor's note: This was written before it was announced that Chris Paul would not play).
The awesome thing about this matchup is that neither teams' fans look forward to these games. They're mean, slow and vicious, three words we don't often associate with the Clippers. And yet, they did pull off that first-round win last year.
As for the Grizzlies, it seems clear their early offensive success was an aberration and that bench, which has really performed admirably this season, needs an upgrade. At best, Memphis gets a favorable draw -- say the Warriors -- in the first round and then makes life miserable for the Clippers/Spurs/Thunder in the second. Maybe the Grizzlies win another round and advance to another conference final.
They're good enough to do that as is, but of all the contenders they would stand to gain the most from a significant deal at the deadline. The people running the show now are not stupid. They are in fact very intelligent. By floating names such as Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph in trade rumors, they are both preparing the home fans for the possibility and trying to inflate their own players' value. That's how this stuff works.
If they do nothing, this is still a very good team with a puncher's chance. If they make the right trade, though, watch out. That's not a bad place to be in mid-January.
TUESDAY: Clippers at Houston, 8 p.m.
We like to spread things around here, but come on. This is too good. While we'd prefer both teams were rested and ready -- the Rockets have their own nightmare schedule to deal with right now -- we'll take it anytime we can get it.
WEDNESDAY: Brooklyn at Atlanta, 7:30 p.m.
This is what passes for Eastern Conference excitement. The Hawks, once one of the league's overlooked success stories, have lost six of eight. The Nets, once one of the league's overhyped disappointments have won eight of nine. It's like the whole conference is made up of No. 6 seeds.
THURSDAY: Miami at Lakers, 10:30 p.m.
Because we're contractually obligated to care about a 16-21 team, we're duty-bound to point out that the closest the NBA will ever see to their dream Finals matchup will take place on a Thursday night in January.
FRIDAY: Golden State at San Antonio, 8:30 p.m.
Just how good are the Warriors? They have the 10th-best offense and 12th-best defense, a good record at home and a winning record away from Oracle. All of that says solid, good and capable. Against likely playoff teams from the East, they are 7-0, including a win over Miami.
HOWEVER, the Warriors are 1-3 versus Denver, have two losses to Memphis and one against Oklahoma City. They also lost twice to the Lakers, but hahahahahaha we said "likely playoff teams." They did beat the Clippers two out of three times, which is good, but it's fair to ask if the upstart Dubs are really in the same class as the West's top teams.
This is their first meeting with the Spurs, who have nothing to prove to anybody ever during the regular season.
SATURDAY: Milwaukee at Portland, 10 p.m.
Just how weird are the Bucks? The Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis backcourt gets most of the attention, but that only scratches the surface. We're all for misfit combos, but it seems safe to say that it doesn't really work. They've played more than 1,000 minutes together this season, and the Bucks are barely scoring 100 points per 100 possessions when they share the court, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool.
This is a team with no less than three all-caps frontcourt players: LARRY SANDERS! EKPE UDOH! JOHN HENSON! This is also a team that pays Drew Gooden and Sam Dalembert more than $13 million to not play and we haven't even mentioned Ersan Ilyasova's bizarre decline. Also, would it kill them to use Tobias Harris once in a while?
They have the 26th-ranked offense, but the eighth-ranked D despite the fact that they are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league. And yet, they remain largely competitive on a nightly basis and will probably sneak into the playoffs, where given the right matchup -- cough Miami cough -- they could cause some problems.
SUNDAY: Oklahoma City at Denver, 8 p.m.
There was a stretch late in the Nuggets win over Golden State on Sunday night when all of Denver's disparate elements aligned in perfect harmony. Ty Lawson was unstoppable, Andre Miller was sublime, Danilo Gallinari couldn't miss and Kenny Faried smashed everything in sight. It was an awesome display of the kind of chaos Denver is capable of producing without warning at any time, especially at home where the Nuggets are 13-2.