PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – In the NBA, no one worries too much about the highs and lows of the season’s first few weeks. There’s a requisite adjustment period for virtually every team, which is probably what the Clippers are experiencing now.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Lakers, two of the West Conference’s toughest teams, the Clippers won. Against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, two teams that will struggle to make the playoffs, they lost.
“We just play to the level of our competition sometimes,” guard Eric Bledsoe said Tuesday after practice. “We’re not up for the games we’re supposed to win, but the games we play against playoff teams, we bring it. It’s not supposed to be like that.”
Maybe that’s a positive sign. On Wednesday night at Staples Center, the Clippers meet the San Antonio Spurs, the team that swept them from the conference semifinals last season after the Clippers won a gritty first-round series against the Grizzlies.
But ready or not, they know it won’t be easy.
The Spurs are off to the first 4-0 start in their 40-year history. Their cast of characters remains unchanged, despite the fact they’re getting a bit older: Tim Duncan is 36, Tony Parker 30 and Manu Gibobili 35.
“They’re all pros,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said. “They all know how to play. Once you start getting older you just have to get a little more efficient. If you can’t get to this spot as quick, you start leaving a little earlier to get to that spot. They all know how to do it. They ain’t going to change. It’s effective, and I like it.”
The Clippers might be less effective for Wednesday’s game because forward Blake Griffin is struggling with a sore right elbow and a stiff neck. He’s been playing with fluid in his elbow and was hit in his neck Wednesday night against the Cavs and again during practice, limiting his time on the court.
“His elbow’s a concern, his neck’s a concern, but Blake’s a tough kid,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He’ll fight through it and give us what he can give us.”
Del Negro said swelling in Griffin’s elbow is affecting his shot, and it shows in his stat line. He’s averaging 16.3 points a game on 45-percent shooting, both below his career averages of 20.7 and 55 percent.
“If you’ve got a bunch of fluid in your elbow, it’s going to bother you,” Del Negro said. “But he’ll fight through it. There’s no question it’s irritating him a little bit.”
Griffin was not available to the media after the team workout.
In the four-game sweep by the Spurs last May, Griffin averaged 21 points, but the Clippers were dispatched quickly, losing the final two games at home. It’s the same San Antonio team they’ll face Wednesday.
“Not much has changed,” Paul said. “They’re the same team, still playing hard, playing aggressive, playing effective. I was in the same division with the Spurs for seven years. They’re never going to beat themselves.”
That means the Clippers will have to avoid a slow start and must try to eliminate the mistakes of the past two games. They made 25 turnovers and gave up 18 more shots to the Cavaliers, although they shot 52.7 percent.
“We have to be smart,” Del Negro said. “We have to rebound the ball well and we can’t turn it over against them because when you get Tony Parker in the open court, he’s as good as there is at finishing.”
Making their job doubly difficult is the fact the Clippers play on the road Thursday night at Portland.
But first they must try to get past the Spurs, who seem to be getting better while they’re getting older.
Another lapse by the Clippers won’t help their chances.
“I expect to see everybody focused and ready to play,” Bledsoe said, “especially after what happened in the playoffs.”