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First thing’s first: Both the Dallas Mavericks and L.A. Clippers will make the play-in tournament. That is not the playoffs. Around these parts, the postseason doesn’t officially begin until the final eight seeds in each conference are settled and first-round matchups are underway.
Once we reach the real playoffs, one of the Mavericks or Clippers won’t be there. Maybe even both will be watching from home after bowing out during the play-in tournament.
Perhaps this isn’t scorching enough for true takemasters. That’s fine. But FiveThirtyEight gives the Clippers a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Mavericks, meanwhile, check in with an 80 percent chance of cracking the first round of the postseason.
Both marks are too high for my tastes.
Dallas is now 2-5 in games with Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Just about every loss has been a crunch-time heartbreaker, and the Mavs are handedly winning the minutes their stars log together. But this team can’t get stops. Dallas is bottom five in points allowed per possession since Jan. 1, and opponents are enjoying parades to the rim during the Dončić-Irving reps.
Maxi Kleber is back, which helps. But the Mavs defense hasn’t necessarily hit rock bottom. Rival offenses are hitting under 30 percent of their triples when Dončić and Irving play together. That isn’t going to hold. And Dallas will be up you-know-what’s-creek without a paddle if Jason Kidd ever decides to expand the Luka, Kyrie and Christian Wood sample.
Even so, the Clippers might be the better bet to miss the playoffs. Sure, they are deeper, and more talented, and actually built to play defense, and were crescendoing before the start of February. They also seem to have an affinity for self-sabotage.
L.A. is 3-6 since the trade deadline, with a 15th-ranked offense and 25th-place defense. Worse: This slide was totally, unequivocally avoidable. Adding Russell Westbrook was always going to be a risk. It may have been indefensible no matter what. But it’s sure as hell unjustifiable given the context in which he’s being used.
The Clippers are starting Westbrook, for some reason. They have used him to close games, for some other reason. L.A. is getting blasted when he plays with both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, which happens quite often, for another reason.
This regression to unspectacular ambiguity is not on Westbrook alone. He isn’t calling the shots. It’s more so on head coach Ty Lue, and Head of the Campaigned for Russ Club, Paul George, and of course, the front office for acquiescing to the Campaigned for Russ Club, at all.
More damningly, this isn’t just a Westbrook thing. Terance Mann has been bounced from the starting five (by Russ) and seen his minutes dip. Marcus Morris Sr. is still front and center. There is no world, frankly, in which he, Westbrook and Eric Gordon should all be averaging more floor time than Mann. And if you’re going to play Russ so much, for the love of sensibility, give more run to Nicolas Batum or Robert Covington over the silhouette of Morris.
Yes, the full-strength Clippers are constructed to be better than this. Whether they’re smart enough to recognize that, though, is up for debate.