The Clippers’ uniforms didn’t have the smell of stale champagne Thursday night in Milwaukee. They can thank the laundry machines for that.
After clinching a playoff berth in Minnesota on Tuesday, the Clippers celebrated their unlikely accomplishment, a moment this team both earned and deserved. One bottle of champagne got sprayed around the room.
And then, the jerseys went into the laundry.
The smiles, the champagne shower, the speeches – they were all the rewards for the Clippers being one of the best stories in the NBA this season. It’s what you reap for being a total success.
But that’s done with.
The Clippers aren’t a “feel-good story” anymore. They’re a playoff team. And with that comes a new set of trials and a new scoreboard for results.
“(Making the playoffs) was one of the goals. We’re not done. We don’t feel like we’re done,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Thursday morning. “It was nice to accomplish that but that’s not our destination. We want to do more. That’s our goal. We’re not backing up.”
Thursday’s 128-118 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, a game where the Clippers trailed by as many as 26 and never led after the first quarter, wasn’t the step back it might seem.
The Clippers used the game fresh off clinching to sit likely Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, citing the NBA’s favorite euphemism for rest – “load management.”
He’s averaging 26.7 minutes per game this year – a steep decline from last season’s career-high 32.8 minutes a night. But he’s never had a higher usage rate as a player, and at 32 years old, a night off at the end of a trip could go a long way towards refreshing him for the playoffs.
You can expect the team to take the same tactic at some points over the final six games of the season, even with seeding still very much up in the air. Danilo Gallinari probably will sit – Rivers essentially rested him for much of the second half Thursday. Despite explicitly needing him on nights like Thursday, you should expect the Clippers to be cautious with Patrick Beverley as he recovers from a hip pointer suffered in Minnesota. Rookie guard Landry Shamat is also a candidate for a night off down the stretch.
There’s an argument to be made that the Clippers’ thinking is too big picture, that the best way to attack the postseason would be to try and win as many games as possible now.
The middle of the Western Conference playoff picture includes Portland, a team minus its second and third most productive starters. It includes the mercurial Houston Rockets who are still trying to cobble together a workable second unit.
There are games to be won and position to be improved over the season’s final two weeks if the Clippers want to keep sprinting. But, instead, the team has chosen to move at a more prudent pace.
Even short-handed, the Clippers flashed Thursday in Milwaukee. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued to play extremely well, like he has for the last month. JaMychal Green and Wilson Chandler, two bench pieces the Clippers acquired late in the season, showed the ways they can impact a game. And Rivers got a chance to tinker with some lineups and rotations on a low-pressure night (it became that as soon as Williams and Beverley were ruled out) against the NBA’s best team.
And still, Rivers said, he thought his team had chances to win.
Whether it’s opinions about rest, expectations about where this team would finish in the standings or the realistic possibility of maybe winning a playoff series if the matchup is right, Rivers and the Clippers don’t want to hear it.
“We don’t care about anybody’s ‘realism.’ We care about our own,” Rivers said. ‘We believe every single game, we can win. We believe every single game we can lose. And that’s a fact. And that’s why we win a lot of games, because of that fear and that realization.”
The Clippers were a great story – a team that defied expectations, that didn’t let a midseason blockbuster deal break its stride, a group that plays hard and selflessly on a nightly basis.
Now, they’re a playoff team. And that, still, isn’t enough for them.
“We’re going to play,” Rivers said, “until someone tells us we can’t play anymore.”