The Clippers’ last lengthy trip of the regular season could amount to an extended scouting mission.
Three of the teams they’ll play on the five-game trip — Dallas, Houston and Phoenix — are possible first-round playoff opponents, though a matchup against the Rockets appears unlikely unless both teams slip considerably over the last three weeks of the regular season.
Before Tuesday’s games, the Clippers (50-21) were in third place in the Western Conference, but only 2 1/2 games behind second-place Oklahoma City and 1 1/2 games ahead of fourth-place Houston.
Things are equally jumbled lower in the standings, where only two games separated the four teams — Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas — vying for the final three playoff spots.
In other words, make sure any travel plans for the playoffs are fully refundable.
The Clippers will start the trip in New Orleans on Wednesday against the Pelicans, the only team they’ll face that is already eliminated from playoff contention but also the one playing the best basketball. New Orleans (30-40) has won seven of its last 10 games, including victories over Miami, Atlanta and Brooklyn.
“Maybe I’ll ask Austin to take the whole team out [Tuesday] and have some bad food,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers quipped about his son, the Pelicans’ backup point guard.
The Clippers then head to Dallas for the second night of a back-to-back Thursday to play the Mavericks (42-29), who are fighting the Phoenix Suns (42-29) for the West’s final playoff spot.
Then it’s on to Houston (48-22) on Saturday, followed by games against Minnesota (34-35) on Monday and Phoenix on Wednesday. There doesn’t appear to be a gimme on the trip, which could compromise the Clippers’ intentions.
“We always like to go over .500,” Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said of playing on the road, “but why not be greedy and see if we can get them all?”
The Clippers are only three games above .500 on the road this season but have won five of their last seven there. Success on this trip would serve a dual purpose.
“I think it’s important, obviously, for the standings, but it’s also important for our own mental state,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “We haven’t really accomplished what we wanted to on the road, so this will be a good opportunity for us to really play some quality teams, teams that are fighting for playoff position and fighting to get in the playoffs.”
After this trip, the Clippers will have only one road game left, at Portland on April 16 in their regular-season finale.
The Clippers’ bench couldn’t sustain the momentum the starters built in taking a 15-point lead against Milwaukee on Monday, its struggles contributing to the Bucks making things uncomfortably close during the Clippers’ eventual 106-98 victory.
Rivers chalked it up largely to Crawford rejoining the reserves and playing alongside newcomers Danny Granger and Glen Davis.
“To me, it’s almost like they’re trying to find themselves again as a group, and they will, they’re working on it, they want to,” Rivers said. “It’s not like they don’t want to do this, so they will.”