Clippers beat Pelicans to clinch eighth place, 2 play-in chances

One of the inclusions on the Clippers’ scouting report of New Orleans was a little-publicized guard whose defensive strategy is unique, and had become so well known that the NBA recently spliced ​​together his highlights.

When opponents inbound the ball, the slight, 6-foot guard hides himself in the corner of a court, then races up behind a dribbler unaware of his presence to poke the ball away. When Portland coach Chauncey Billups called his friend, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, on Sunday to warn him against the trick that had recently led to several Trail Blazers turnovers, Lue let him know he was already planning to have his team watch film of Jose Alvarado before tipoff against the Pelicans.

Maybe it was Lue’s reminder. Maybe it was his roster’s motivation of knowing what Sunday was worth. But either way, neither Alvarado nor the Pelicans sneaked up and surprised the Clippers in a 119-100 victory that clinched them the Western Conference’s eighth-best record.

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, it still holds value. 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.

“I mean it’s not win or go home or end-all, be-all, but this is an important game,” Lue said before tipoff. “If we win tonight we understand we have that eight spot and we have a chance in the play-in game to play two games to win one, so it’s very important and so it’s a big game for us.”

Marcus Morris Sr. made his first three shots and eight of his 13 overall to score a team-high 22 points for the Clippers (39-40), who also received 16 points and 14 rebounds from Ivica Zubac and 15 points and seven assists for Paul George.

The lone outlier on an otherwise easy offensive night was Reggie Jackson, who left several short jump shots, hitting the front of the rim, en route to making four of his 19 shots and one of his nine three-pointers. 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 likely includes some of each given that time off will afford the Clippers practice time to use for their sharpening rather than games.

The possibility remains that guard Norman Powell, sidelined since Feb. 10 with 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.

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.

After three games featuring extended stretches of strong energy and accurate shooting, Lue said before tipoff that an offense that has ranked in the NBA’s bottom tier for much of the season was “trending in the right direction.” And that was before watching the Clippers rip through the Pelicans, which had beaten them three times earlier this season, behind holding New Orleans to just 44 first-half points while making 12 of their first 19 three-pointers.

They would finish 21 of 44 from deep, the first time in franchise history they have made at least 20 in three consecutive games to compensate for shooting just 10 free throws — 17 fewer than New Orleans attempted — while assisting on 33 of their 45 baskets.

A casual observer would have never known the Clippers have the third-worst transition offense in terms of efficiency when Nicolas Batum surgically threaded a pass surgically past the reach of Jonas Valanciunas for a second-quarter layup to Jackson, or when Jackson flipped a no- look pass behind his head for a dunk by Terance Mann.

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