Blake Griffin is almost back and he's here to make the Clippers relevant in the postseason.
Source: Hashtag Basketball - Brian Han
(LOS ANGELES, Calif.) -- Clippers fans, rejoice!
Well, kind of.
Yes, Blake Griffin will be back on the court very soon, but with seven games remaining in the regular season, an air of uncertainty still hangs over the team's situation.
The Los Angeles Clippers will most likely head into the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Western Conference (finished third in 2015) -- a position earned mostly without their star power forward.
But if you dig a little deeper, you'll find a 2-12 record against the NBA's top five teams.
Source: Hashtag Basketball - Brian Han
That sounds like a recipe for an early playoff exit -- a position with which the Clippers and its fans are starting to become uncomfortably familiar.
Now when the Clippers collapsed against the Houston rockets in the 2015 Conference Semifinals, much of it came from a result of pure exhaustion.
After willing themselves past the defending champion San Antonio Spurs over the course of a seven-game roller coaster series, the wheels started to shake.
But not before they took a 3-1 series lead after 25 and 33-point victories over the Rockets. Pace of play slowed down dramatically on the Clippers' end. Many of the Clippers players also got too comfortable, which opened the gates for a 14-point fourth quarter from Josh Smith in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The Rockets closed the Clippers out handily in Game 7.
Griffin will be entering the 2016 playoffs completely fresh. That's the key difference besides a slightly deeper roster including Doc Rivers' latest acquisition in forward Jeff Green.
Assuming Griffin is 100 percent healthy, it goes without saying that he can and will elevate this team on both ends of the court, but is it enough?
A quadriceps tear and subsequent rehab left the 27-year-old off the active roster for over 40 games.
He'll be rusty, but the landscape hasn't changed much. Griffin has played with the team's core of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan for years.
If anything, Chris Paul continues to show that he can execute effective plays with limited options around him. Redick is arguably crafting his best season yet as he leads the league in 3-point percentage. And Jordan? He's never looked more comfortable catching half court lobs from Paul after demoralizing opponents on defense.
True, the team's record without Blake impressed many around the league, but that's only because the Clippers won many of the games they should.
They can't seem to seal a victory against the opponents that will truly matter come postseason.
But now, Griffin is arriving just in time. He's currently serving his four-game suspension, which he received after punching friend/assistant equipment manager Matias Testi in a highly publicized January incident. He is scheduled to come back on April 5 in a home game against the Washington Wizards.
Regular season Blake is fun to watch even if you don't care for Clippers basketball.
Playoff Blake is a force of nature that will draw any fan's attention.
He scores more. As a big, his distribution of the ball is exceptional. He becomes much more aggressive on the boards, an area where the Clippers have struggled as of late.
The man has developed from relying on brute force, to complementing his existing talents with a formidable mid-range jumper and footwork that would make a ballerina blush.
Keep in mind that he's acquired these new skills despite a knee and elbow surgery, one of which kept him off the court for an entire season. (He ended up coming back with a 23-game double-double streak during his official rookie year)
But that brings us back to the question. Is it enough?
Let's take a quick look at the most likely first round playoff matchup:
Grizzlies vs. Clippers
The Grizzlies are missing one of their best assets in center Marc Gasol, who's out for the rest of the year after a season-ending injury.
Compound that with the fact that Memphis is plugging up all its weaknesses and lack of roster depth with D-League players.
Even with that in mind, the Grizz still pulled out a comfortable 113-102 win in the teams' most recent game.
But with Blake back, the matchup heavily favors the Clippers as long as he's in good shape.
Coach Doc Rivers told the Los Angeles Times that upon his return to practice, "[Griffin] had no endurance as far as his wind, but as far as just playing basketball, he looked terrific."