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NBA playoff observations: Semifinals takeaways through the Clippers’ lens

At this point of the postseason last year, the LA Clippers were in a place they hadn’t been before: the Western Conference finals. This year, they’re one of 26 teams watching the NBA’s final four teams from home.

In another example of how much things can change in the NBA, none of this year’s conference finalists won a playoff series last year. That’s the first time that has happened since 2015, when the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers made the conference finals after either losing in the quarterfinals or missing the postseason in 2014.

As we did two weeks ago when the quarterfinals ended, let’s examine the results of the semifinals from a Clippers’ lens and share some perspective on what it might mean for LA as it looks to return to the playoffs in 2023.


No. 4 Dallas Mavericks defeat No. 1 Phoenix Suns, 4-3

On one hand, the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff run this year is similar to what the Clippers did last year.

  • Beat the Utah Jazz in six games, winning two games with and two games without the best player on the team. ✅
  • Beat the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed, which included a pivotal road win in the series. ✅
  • Win a Game 7 that went completely against the home/road result trend that was established in the first six games. ✅

You don’t beat Luka Dončić in a playoff series. You survive him. The Clippers did that in 2020 and 2021, and they needed both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to do it. And perhaps they needed even more. The Clippers set what was then an NBA record for 3-pointers in a Game 7 last year with 20 to eliminate the Mavericks despite a postseason career-high 46 points from Dončić.

The Suns could have used 20 3s in Game 7 against the Mavericks. Instead, Dončić scored 27 first-half points, as many points as Phoenix scored as a team by halftime. It was a shocking and damaging performance by the Suns, and they caught slander that hadn’t been seen since the Clippers lost Game 7 in the semifinals to the Denver Nuggets inside the 2020 bubble.

The main characters of this year’s slander tour have been former Clippers Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley. You may recall when Beverley and George trolled Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard in a seeding game, only for Lillard to lead the comeuppance for the Clippers blowing a 3-1 lead a month later. This time around, Beverley has been on television all week saying things like, “Do guys go to sleep early the night before playing the Phoenix Suns? Hell no.

Obviously, it’s not a great look for Beverley, whom the Clippers would have hoped went to sleep the night before Game 6 against the Suns last year. That’s when Paul matched his postseason career high with 41 points in a Suns win on the Clippers’ home floor to end the Western Conference finals. The most glaring example of the personal beef between the two guards was when Beverley shoved Paul in the back and was ejected at the end of what was Beverley’s last game in a Clippers uniform.

This brings us back to the Mavericks. Yes, the Clippers have been the only team so far to eliminate Dončić’s team; the Jazz and now Suns realize how difficult that is after holding series leads of 1-0 and 2-0, respectively. When Dončić tied the 2020 quarterfinals with a buzzer-beater, the Clippers responded in that Game 5 by beating the Mavericks 154-111 before ending the series in six games. The Suns beat the Mavericks 110-80 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead but became the first team to lose a series after winning a Game 5 by at least 30 points to take a 3-2 series lead.

The Mavericks did what the Clippers could not do last year: Beat the Suns. No, Leonard was not available for the Clippers last year, but George was. Despite the Clippers being short-handed, they still had their chances to win the conference finals. Paul missed the first two games of the series in health and safety protocols, and Phoenix won both, with Game 2 ending in the infamous Valley-Oop to Deandre Ayton. While Dallas beat the Suns soundly in all three of their home games in the 2022 semifinals, the Clippers dropped two games at home, including a Game 4 loss that saw both teams struggle to score for minutes at a time in the fourth quarter.

Dončić can do special things, and he didn’t have an All-Star next to him against the Suns, which was George’s situation last year. Still, the Mavericks were able to get it done. George and Leonard are going to need each other in the postseason going forward, because Dončić is only going to get better, and the Mavericks will improve their roster as well. They certainly have a better fit after trading Kristaps Porziņģis to the Washington Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns.


No. 3 Golden State Warriors defeat No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies, 4-2

The Warriors are back in the Western Conference finals. They remain a source of inspiration for the Clippers, as the Warriors went into the 2021 Play-In Tournament as the eighth seed, only to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers and then the Grizzlies. Golden State made minimal changes to its roster, got healthy and beat the team that ended their season a year ago.

Here’s a look at how Golden State’s roster changed from the end of 2021 to the end of 2022, and what that could look like for the Clippers. The caveat is LA may have to replace some free agents, and we’re a month from the draft, seven weeks from the hot stove of free agency, five months from Week 1 and nine months from the trade deadline.

Warriors roster and Clippers projection

Warriors 2022 rosterWarriors 2021 rosterClippers 2022 rosterClippers 2023 roster

PG Stephen Curry

PG Stephen Curry

PG Reggie Jackson

PG Reggie Jackson

SG Klay Thompson

SG Klay Thompson (injured)

SG Paul George

SG Paul George

SF Andrew Wiggins

SF Andrew Wiggins

SF Kawhi Leonard (injured)

SF Kawhi Leonard

PF Draymond Green

PF Draymond Green

PF Marcus Morris Sr.

PF Marcus Morris Sr.

C Kevon Looney

C Kevon Looney

C Ivica Zubac

C Ivica Zubac (team option)

PG Gary Payton II

PG Gary Payton II

PG Terance Mann

PG Terance Mann

SG Jordan Poole

SG Jordan Poole

SG Luke Kennard

SG Luke Kennard

SF Andre Iguodala

SF Kelly Oubre Jr.

SF Norman Powell

SF Norman Powell

PF Otto Porter Jr.

PF Eric Paschall

PF Nicolas Batum

PF Nicolas Batum (player option)

C Nemanja Bjelica

C Alen Smailagic

C Isaiah Hartenstein

C Isaiah Hartenstein (unrestricted free agent)

G Moses Moody

G Mychal Mulder

PG Jason Preston (injured)

PG Jason Preston

SG Damion Lee

SG Damion Lee

SG Brandon Boston Jr.

SG Brandon Boston Jr.

F Jonathan Kuminga

SF Kent Bazemore

SF Rodney Hood

SF Rodney Hood (unrestricted free agent)

PF Juan Toscano-Anderson

PF Juan Toscano-Anderson

PF Robert Covington

PF Robert Covington

C James Wiseman (injured)

C James Wiseman

F Amir Coffey

F Amir Coffey (restricted free agent)

PG Chris Chiozza (two-way)

PG Nico Mannion (two-way)

PG Xavier Moon (two-way)

PG Xavier Moon (restricted free agent)

SG Quinndary Weatherspoon (two-way)

C Jordan Bell (two-way)

SG Jay Scrubb (two-way)

SG Jay Scrubb (restricted free agent)

The Warriors had two 2021 lottery picks at their disposal, but rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody haven’t been major parts of Golden State’s playoff rotation, and 2020 second-overall pick James Wiseman missed the entire season. The Clippers don’t have any lottery picks and are set to select 43rd overall in the 2022 NBA Draft. Like Golden State, LA could fill those spots with players who might be third-stringers next season with a fully healthy roster. The health is obviously the keystone, with Golden State getting Klay Thompson back after missing two-and-a-half seasons and the Clippers planning for Leonard to return for at least the majority of the 2022-23 season.

It’s worth noting how close this series was for Memphis. The Grizzlies had double-digit leads in each of the first five games of this series and led at the end of the first quarter in each of the first five games. Memphis outscored the Warriors by 28 points in the first quarters of the semifinals, by four points in the second quarters and by four points in the third quarters. But Golden State outscored Memphis by 40 points in the fourth quarters, making the final score of the series 666-662 in favor of Golden State.

Also, the Warriors aren’t going to catch the same ridiculous criticism the Suns got for advancing past teams that weren’t fully healthy, which they shouldn’t. Denver didn’t have Jamal Murray (ACL) or Michael Porter Jr. (back) next to back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokić, and Memphis didn’t have Ja Morant due to a bone bruise in his right knee after Game 3. Both Dallas (Tim Hardaway Jr. out with foot injury) and Golden State (Gary Payton II out with elbow injury) will be missing key players to begin the Western Conference Finals.


No. 2 Boston Celtics defeat No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks, 4-3

The Clippers traded Serge Ibaka to Milwaukee as an act of goodwill (and salary-shedding), but the defending-champion Bucks only played Ibaka for 22 minutes in the postseason, with none coming in the final five games of the semifinals against the Celtics. Boston eliminated Milwaukee after it broke the record the Clippers set last year for most 3s in a Game 7, making 22-of-55 (40 percent). It just so happened the 22nd 3-pointer was hit by Malik Fitts, who was in Clippers training camp in 2020, on the G League team during the 2020-21 season, signed a 10-day with LA last April and played for the Clippers in NBA Summer League.

This is the third time the wing tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has made it to the Eastern Conference finals in five seasons together. As noted last month, the Clippers are similarly built around two apex predators on the wing in George and Leonard.


No. 1 Miami Heat defeat No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers, 4-2

You don’t have to go far to find the last time the Heat and Celtics matched up in the Eastern Conference finals, as the Heat beat the Celtics in six games in the 2020 bubble. That was the last series the Heat won with Dan Craig on Erik Spoelstra’s staff, and the Heat went on to lose the NBA Finals to the Lakers.

Nine days after the 2020 NBA Finals ended, the Clippers promoted Tyronn Lue to head coach, and Lue hired Craig as associate head coach and de facto defensive coordinator. By the end of Craig’s 17 seasons with the Heat, he was tasked with many of the exotic-zone looks that helped the Heat sweep the Pacers in the quarterfinals, upset the Bucks in the semifinals, outlast the Celtics in the conference finals and push the Lakers to six games in the NBA Finals. When the Clippers visited Miami in January 2021, Lue called Craig, “one of the highly-regarded defensive minds in the game.”

The Clippers enter this offseason knowing they are secure in their roster (both stars and depth), front office and coaching situation. That isn’t the case as much with Philadelphia and former Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. The last time Rivers coached in the conference finals was 10 years ago, when the Celtics lost to… the Miami Heat. Now in Philly, Rivers finds himself with Joel Embiid and James Harden as he did in 2016 with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: coaching two stars in different stages of their careers for franchises that ended five consecutive postseason appearances without a spot in the conference finals in either of them.

(Photo of Luka Dončić and Chris Paul: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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