When two teams whose seasons had gone in opposite directions met Sunday at Madison Square Garden, the greatest suspense was reserved not for their result after the day’s 48 minutes, but for how they would fare in three months’ time.
Led by Lou Williams, the Clippers closed the game on a 21-9 run to beat the New York Knicks, 124-113. Williams — the favorite to win, for a third time, NBA sixth man of the year — scored a game-high 29 points, including 15 points in the fourth quarter.
Danilo Gallinari (26 points) and Montrezl Harrell (24) helped Williams create separation and combined to score 30 of the Clippers’ 35 points in the final quarter. Ivica Zubac recorded the 12th double-double of his career, third as a Clipper, with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The result was expected. Amid their push to secure the best playoff seed, the Clippers (44-30) have won 10 of their last 11 games and pulled a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City and Utah for the fifth spot in the West. The Knicks (14-60), vying with a couple of teams for the best draft lottery odds, have lost 12 of their last 13.
What remains unclear is whether the franchises’ recent success, or lack thereof, will factor into their appeal among top free agents, such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving, when free agency opens July 1.
Though numerous teams will pursue top free agents and the Knicks and Clippers won’t battle one on one in a boardroom come July, the teams nonetheless are often sandwiched in the same conversation because New York can sign two players to maximum-level contracts, and the Clippers can clear enough salary-cap room to do the same by the time teams start making free-agency pitches.
“I have no thought process on what I’m pitching,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said before tip-off. “I got Doc Rivers in the other locker room right now with a damn good basketball team.”
Some Clippers officials push back on the thinking that their pursuit of free agents this summer is make-or-break, saying they’re focused on 2020 as well, but owner Steve Ballmer has yet to publicly tamp any enthusiasm about 2019. Though Dolan’s and Ballmer’s ownership tenures are a study in contrasts — Dolan is derided, with fans openly pining for him to sell the team, while Ballmer is often celebrated for beefing up a former bare-bones organization and hiring one of the NBA’s most respected front offices — they are alike in at least this way.
“We’re headhunting in a place where this team has not been before,” Ballmer told The Times in December.
Rivers also declined to get into specifics about what he would tell free agents — “I’m not going to give you my spiel, man” — but the broad strokes of the team’s summer pitch are well known: Rivers’ sideline credibility, Ballmer’s financial backing, Los Angeles’ appeal and a strong core of returners that includes reserve stars Williams and Harrell.
Whether that can create separation from destinations such as New York, which has lost at least 50 games each of the last five seasons but remains one of the league’s most prominent franchises and plays in perhaps its most iconic building, remains to be seen.
“We’ll focus on trying to win as many games and see if we can get into the playoffs and see where we can go,” Rivers said, “and then the rest of the stuff will happen.”
The Clippers can only hope to close their free-agency meetings as well as Williams shut down the Knicks. After making only four of 13 shots through the first three quarters, Williams made three three-pointers in the fourth quarter and scored his team’s final seven points.
“No surprises how we’re playing,” Williams said. “We’re just enjoying the moment.”
Clippers rookie guard Landry Shamet sustained an impingement of his left ankle while closing out on defense midway through the third quarter and did not return. Rivers indicated Shamet could miss a few games, but the player was not in obvious discomfort after the game and said nothing had been ruled out regarding a return. The Clippers next play Tuesday in Minnesota.