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Thursday, March 23, 2006 

TOTAL DISAPPEARING ACT BY CLIPPERS

A lot of Clipper fans have been talking about tanking to drop out of the 5 spot and avoid facing Dallas or San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. Well, you heard it here first: the Clippers will have lost the 5 seed within the week and will not come close to regaining it. You can kiss that sucker goodbye.

How can I be so sure? For one, after flapping their gums about how tonight's game would be a battle of toughness, the Clippers showed absolutely none -- never showed up at all -- as the Memphis Grizzlies coasted to a wire-to-wire 95-85 win. Moreover, Memphis' remaining schedule is a Ralph Lawler-certified "cakewalk": while 10 of the Clippers' final 15 games are against playoff-bound opponents, 10 of the Grizzlies' final 14 are against playoff outsiders, starting with the Knicks, Bobcats and Sonics next week. (Don't be surprised when you hear about their eight-game or longer win streak.) Most important, the Grizz are playing playoff basketball, while the Clippers look soft and tired, mentally and physically weak.

Wait a minute, you say, we're eleven games over .500 and Clipper fans have never had it so good. I don't think I'm being too tough on them when Cuttino Mobley said this week, "We should be nineteen games over .500." I'm sure nobody in that locker room is satisfied with the team's level of play in the last two games. Nor am I being a drama queen -- remember, I shrugged off last week's loss in Phoenix -- to suggest they'll have to raise their level measurably to stave off the Kings and Lakers (who close the season with five straight at home) for the 6 seed.

Tonight, the Clippers were a mess from start to finish. Elton Brand finally resembled the Elton Brand we know, recording a 25-and-11 double-double. But only Sam Cassell shared the scoring load, putting up 21 points on 8-17 shooting. Chris Kaman contributed all of seven on 3-9 shooting and made Lorenzen Wright look like an absolute All-Star, completing a trip from hell in fitting fashion. Has he ever hit a wall. Cat Mobley hit just 1-4 before sitting out the second half with a sprained ankle; with Zeljko Rebraca due back within the week, we may find out tomorrow whether Coach Dunleavy will ever get to field a fully healthy roster.

Off the bench, Vladimir Radmanovic was a Matt Pinto-proclaimed "nonfactor," scoring most of his 12 in garbage time, while Corey Maggette was a horror story, shooting 1-5 from the field and committing five turnovers. In total, the Clippers turned the ball over an obscene 24 times, and you'll never win with numbers like that. Meanwhile, Memphis had five men in double figures, taking full advantage of the Clippers' lack of interior defense. The teams post almost identical records, but the Grizzlies appear far sharper coming down the stretch.

The Clippers have feasted on the fair to poor teams in the NBA. And, as Lee Klein notes, all the games count the same. But there's one problem with that: the Houstons and Minnesotas and Chicagos of the league won't be around come playoff time. Tonight was billed as a "statement game," and I can count the team's statement wins on one hand: the last San Antonio game, the Denver back-to-back, the first Miami game, the first Phoenix game. Maybe you throw the last Laker game in, but even the less talented Lakers have bagged more big game than the Clippers. And with both L.A. teams facing higher seeds in the first round, one thing no Laker hater wants -- least of all in this, our best season in forever -- is for the purple and gold to outshine us in the postseason.

Click on Clipper Talk and join the discussion. -- Jordan


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