Chauncey Billups is back in the starting lineup for the Los Angeles Clippers, just in time to begin what they hope is an extended run in the playoffs.
The veteran guard's mere presence was enough for his teammates in their sixth straight win, 93-77 over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night. He had four points — all on free throws — while playing 17 minutes, just under the limit set for him after he missed eight games with a strained right groin.
''I was happy to be out there running around,'' said Billups, who shot 0 for 5 from the field. ''I was a little too excited with my shots.''
Caron Butler scored 18 of his 22 points in the third quarter in his return from a sore right knee. Blake Griffin added 16 points, DeAndre Jordan had 10 points and nine rebounds, and Chris Paul had 11 assists for the Pacific Division champions, who finished their home schedule with a 32-9 record.
They end the regular season on Wednesday at Sacramento, and another win or a Memphis loss would ensure the Clippers have home-court advantage to start the playoffs.
''Our mindset is we're going to go earn it,'' Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.
The Clippers remain in the hunt for the No. 3 seed in the West, but they need help from Denver. The Nuggets would need to lose at home to Phoenix and the Clippers would need to win on the road to move up.
''We're playing the right way and jumping on teams early,'' Jordan said. ''Our defense is really what's separating us as the games go on.''
Billups has had a front-row seat to watch his teammates while he's been out.
''The biggest thing that I like is that our emphasis on defensive end has been a lot better,'' he said. ''Our focus on stopping guys on the pick-and-roll one night or rotating and running guys off the 3-point line one night. We've been able to change it up game-to-game pretty successfully and that's going to be big in the playoffs.''
Will Barton scored 17 points and Joel Freeland added 13 for the Blazers, who never led while losing their 12th in a row.
The Clippers were dominant in the paint (46-30) and on the boards (51-33) while wrapping up the season series 3-1.
''They picked up their defense and their energy, and as soon as that happens, it's tough to maintain yours,'' Freeland said. ''They were running. They were beating us on the fast breaks and things like that. It was tough, but we had to try and keep more composed than what we were, but we couldn't seem to do that.''
Five of the previous six meetings between the teams in Los Angeles had been decided by 10 points or fewer. It was never that close after the second quarter, when the Clippers pulled away on the strength of their bench.
''There were a lot of possessions where we really executed,'' Paul said. ''I really got excited when we ran some of our actions to perfection and really paid attention to detail because that's what we're going to have to do in the playoffs.''
The reserves scored 15 consecutive points for a 45-29 lead, including five by Ryan Hollins. He and Jamal Crawford combined for the quarter's most spectacular play, with Crawford flipping a no-look pass to a streaking Hollins on the fast break for a driving jam. Hollins got fouled and completed the three-point play.
The starters returned for the final four minutes and sent the Clippers into the half leading 54-36.
''We got stops and our second team did a great job, and made it tough for them to score,'' Griffin said.
Butler had the hot hand in the third, hitting four 3-pointers in his first game since sitting out the second half at Memphis last weekend.
The highlight dunk of the third belonged to Jordan. Paul found him on the break and Jordan dunked with his fingertips. The starters rested in the fourth. Twelve of the 13 Clippers scored in the game.
NOTES: Paul and Griffin addressed the crowd before tipoff to thank them for their support. ''Are we having fun yet this year or what? The best is yet to come, folks,'' longtime Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler told the fans. ... The Blazers started four rookies - Barton, Victor Claver, Meyers Leonard and Damian Lillard - for the second time in franchise history. The quartet also started against the Lakers last week. ... Portland wraps up its losing season against Golden State on Wednesday. ... A 27-year-old man hit a half-court shot to win a new car, the second time it's happened this season. Jordan led the applause for him during a timeout.