Clippers head to Phoenix with more than just revenge in mind

As the Clippers head down the final stretch of the regular season, they understand the importance of not just beating Phoenix in their rematch Tuesday night but building toward something bigger.

The Clippers are one game behind No. 3 Portland and two behind No. 2 San Antonio.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA TODAY Sports

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- The Clippers have a perfect recollection of the last time they played the Phoenix Suns. It still hurts to think about it.

"They killed us," Blake Griffin said. "They dominated almost every aspect. They got all the 50-50 balls, offensive rebounds, they ran on us, hit threes, everything."

More than two months have passed since that Dec. 30 game, a 107-88 Suns win, but as the Clippers head down the final stretch of 21 regular-season games, they understand the importance of not just beating Phoenix in their rematch Tuesday night but building toward something bigger.

That makes every remaining game critical.

"Every team wants to play their best basketball around this time, and that's what we’re trying to do," guard Darren Collison said Monday at practice. "We're trying to fix all the little mistakes that we normally have at the beginning of the season or that we had a couple of weeks ago. We want to make sure we're playing our best."

Since the start of training camp, coach Doc Rivers has emphasized preparation for the playoffs, something that was little more than a pipe dream to previous Clippers teams. But they're headed toward their third consecutive postseason run, and a strong finish could give them momentum and an improved playoff seeding.

Rivers insisted he doesn't pay much attention to the standings, but the Clippers have time to improve their No. 4 spot in the Western Conference. They're one game behind No. 3 Portland and two behind No. 2 San Antonio, and they have a reasonably favorable schedule. Of their remaining games, 11 are against non-playoff teams.

Not that any of that matters to Rivers.

"I don't even think of the East or the West or the standings," he said. "I still don't get why you look at the standings. That won't make me do anything different today. I know they're all close, and in the West everybody is good, so what else do I need to know?

"I just want to get better. At the end of the day, if you don't get better, you're going to lose."

Defeating the Suns at US Airways Center would be a step in the right direction. In their first meeting, the Clippers shot just 36.5 percent from the field and fell behind by 29 points after three quarters. They're not expected to have guard Jamal Crawford, who is slowed by a strained left calf, available.

"They're playing free, they're playing loose," Collison said of the Suns. "For us, we've got to leave the bad experience they gave us in that first rodeo in our mouth. We're going to be looking for revenge, but at the same time, we're going to be focusing on ourselves and trying to get better."

They must also keep in mind that every game brings them closer to the postseason.

"The focus goes up another notch," Griffin said of the final weeks. "Not to say we weren't focused before the All-Star break, but when we're heading down this home stretch and jockeying for position, the mental intensity and being locked in has to go up another level. We can't take any game for granted, any play for granted."