The Clippers began the regular season an afterthought and ended it a surprise.
They now enter the postseason hoping for a similar result.
After 48 wins, the Clippers will face the two-time defending champion and top-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA postseason, beginning with Game 1 Saturday at Oakland’s Oracle Arena.
The matchup was locked in an hour before they tipped off their regular-season finale Wednesday against Utah, because of victories earlier in the evening by Oklahoma City, which ended in sixth place in the Western Conference standings, and seventh-place San Antonio.
The night ended with the Clippers’ 143-137 overtime victory against a gaggle of Jazz bench players. It ended a three-game Clippers losing streak, but coach Doc Rivers dismissed any notion of gaining momentum on the eve of the postseason, believing the Clippers will be ready to reprise their role as the conference’s upstart.
“It’s a whole new season,” Rivers said. “It’s time to get going.”
Montrezl Harrell scored a team-high 24 points and Ivica Zubac scored 22 points, with 11 rebounds and played the star in overtime with his dunks and a block. Utah rested nearly every rotation player of significance — including Rudy Gobert, the NBA’s potential defensive player of the year, and star guard Donovan Mitchell — because it had locked up fifth place in the West the previous night.
The Clippers had a stronger incentive. Their usual rotation hadn’t played together since March 31, also the date of their last victory, because of absences from starters Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari, who dealt with injuries, and JaMychal Green, who had been away from the team to attend the birth of a son. Rather than follow Utah’s lead, Rivers played his regular group and watched as they picked up right where they left off in March, when the Clippers (48-34) went an NBA-best 13-2.
“I don’t care if we play well or not I just want them on the floor playing,” Rivers said. “We got that and that was good.”
Los Angeles led by 17 in the first half and made more than 50% of its field goals and three-pointers by halftime. All five starters played at least 20 minutes.
Yet even down nine points in the fourth quarter, Utah (50-32) never faded. They led by one with 67 seconds remaining when Tony Bradley caught a bounce pass from Naz Mitrou-Long, took a step and dunked to groans.
The Clippers outscored Utah 17-11 in overtime.
If there was inconsistency, there were also positive signs.
Harrell looked more like the energetic candidate for the NBA’s top reserve honors than the player who’d averaged 12.7 points during the three-game losing streak. His scream after a dunk late in the third quarter pumped noise back into a building that, since a halftime ceremony honoring team broadcaster Ralph Lawler’s final regular-season game after 40 seasons, had grown quiet.
And Beverley, who had missed the last three games with a hip pointer, also appeared ready for a playoff date against the defending champions.
The hallmarks of his season, accurate three-point shooting and a vicious edge, were on display as he made his first three three-pointers and traded unfriendly words and glances with Jazzguard Joe Ingles in the first half.
“Should we take that personal that the Warriors are the favorite?” Rivers said. “The [Clippers] have a chip anyway. … My guess is in the next 48 hours someone’sgoing to write something or say something that will piss Pat off and he’ll tell everybody and it will work out for us.”