One of the inclusions on the Clippers’ scouting report of New Orleans was a Pelicans guard few probably knew of — except for the opponents preparing for him.
When opponents inbound the ball, Jose Alvarado — a slight, 6-foot undrafted rookie — does something his coach, Willie Green, admitted never really seeing before. Alvarado camouflages himself in the court’s corner, then races up behind a dribbler unaware of his presence to poke the ball away. It has happened so often that the NBA spliced together the trickery into a social media post and Portland coach Chauncey Billups called his friend, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, on Sunday as a warning. Lue told him it would be on the team’s pregame film session.
Except there was no sneaking up and surprising the Clippers on Sunday in a 119-100 rout of New Orleans that clinched them the Western Conference’s eighth-best record. Up 11 points with 9:05 to play before halftime, the Clippers’ lead never again dipped into single digits and grew to 22 at halftime and as many as 26 with nine minutes to play.
In years past, clinching eighth would guarantee a first-round series against the conference’s top seed. In the era of the play-in tournament, its value still exists, if diminished. The winner of the seven-versus-eight game earns the seventh overall seed while the loser has another opportunity to advance by playing the winner of the nine-versus-10 game.
“Two games to win one” is how Lue framed the importance of eighth, and in winning this one Sunday, the Clippers (39-40) are inching closer to being ready for the postseason in part by focusing on what matchups they needed to take away and doing just that.
Smooth Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum scored 19 points but needed 18 shots. Jonas Valanciunas, a matchup killer earlier this season when New Orleans won the first three matchups against the Clippers, scored only eight points. Brandon Ingram scored 15 points on three-for-11 shooting. All of them struggled in the Pelicans’ 13-point second quarter. The loss kept the Pelicans (34-44) in ninth place and neither Alvarado nor New Orleans caught the Clippers sleeping.
“I thought we did a really good job of just sticking to a game plan and I challenged the team my first game back to start shaping into more of a playoff team and I think we’re doing that,” said Paul George, who scored 15 points with seven assists in his third game back since an elbow injury cost him 43 consecutive games. “I think we did that, I think we’ve been doing that. The Chicago game, we had that one, I made some bad plays down the stretch, but I think overall, we’re starting to — as a unit — shape up as a playoff team. So, that’s just what you want to see late in the year.”
While New Orleans was held to just 44 first-half points, the Clippers made 12 of their first 19 three-point shots and finished 21 for 44 from deep, the first time in franchise history they have made at least 20 in three consecutive games. It was also their second consecutive game with at least 33 assists.
Marcus Morris Sr. made his first three shots and eight of his 13 overall to score a team-high 22 points for the Clippers, who also received 16 points and 14 rebounds from Ivica Zubac.
The lone outlier on an otherwise easy offensive night was Reggie Jackson, who left several jump shots short, hitting the front of the rim, en route to making four of his 19 shots and one of his nine three-point attempts. Yet he also added 10 assists against just two turnovers.
With eighth locked up, the Clippers have decisions to make with games against Phoenix, Sacramento and Oklahoma City remaining: Use the time to rest or ramp up? With two days off before each of their next two games, the answer includes some of each, but Lue said the time has come to increase George’s minutes as a means of pushing his conditioning and testing out postseason lineups that could include veterans such as Morris, Jackson and Nicolas Batum, whose minutes were cut weeks ago in preparation of just such a stretch run playing alongside George.
The possibility remains that guard Norman Powell, sidelined since Feb. 10 because of a fractured medial sesamoid bone in his foot, could join them on the practice floor. Powell was the last Clipper on the court before tipoff Sunday, working out with coaches on a series of shooting and agility drills that included some explosive jumps, his first public workout since the injury three games into his Clippers tenure.
Lue said he didn’t know whether Powell would practice either of the following two days.
“This is the time when we start to get everything rolling,” Morris said. “Having PG back and hopefully getting Norm back sometime soon, I think for any team it’s definitely seeing us is going to be something different.
“I think that they’re going to be very surprised — not really surprised — but if I was a team and having to get us as the eighth seed? I would think, ‘Damn, that’s going to be a tough one.’”