LOS ANGELES — From now until the end of the regular season, the Clippers are on a search for seeding.
No. 3 would be nice; No. 2 would be nicer. But as they look to close the season on a rush, the Clippers also need to aware of what’s behind them.
There’s little doubt that Western Conference teams are going to be bunched between the third and fifth seeds during the final weeks, making the Clippers’ 93-80 win over the New York Knicks on Sunday at Staples Center an important step forward.
It put a depressing loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last week behind them, and it gave them a chance to find a renewed sense of energy that had been missing of late.
“Our energy was great,” guard Chris Paul said. “We pushed the tempo, we picked up the pace. Our second half was a lot better than our first half. It’s always good to win.”
It was not, however, a full 48 minutes of intensity. The Clippers made six turnovers in the first quarter and 10 in the first half but only two in the final two periods. Some of their loss of energy might have been attributable to the fact the Knicks were missing their core players, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, who were scratched with knee injuries. Amar’e Stoudemire is out until early May for the same reason.
That left the Knicks with a starting five that wouldn’t frighten anyone: Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton, Chris Copeland, Kurt Thomas and former Clippers forward Kenyon Martin.
“We want them to be at full throttle with Melo and Tyson just for the competition of it,” Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said. “Once they’re not playing, it’s just human nature to have a subconscious letdown, but you’ve got to find a way to scratch through it.”
It took them a while, but the Clippers finally did. They surged to a 19-point lead late in the third quarter, fed off their defensive energy by holding the Knicks to 35.8-percent shooting and held off a mild fourth-quarter run. They also mixed in a couple of alley-oop passes that led to slam dunks by DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.
Paul had 20 points and eight assists, Griffin 12 points and 12 rebounds, and Jordan eight points and 10 rebounds, including six points and six rebounds in the first quarter. It was Jordan’s energetic play — and a soaring windmill dunk off a fast-break pass from Paul in the opening quarter — that helped give the Clippers a jolt when they needed it.
“His energy is contagious,” backup guard Jamal Crawford said of Jordan. “I always tell him that. On this team especially, we feed off of that. When he’s locked in and active, we tend to follow suit. So for us, it’s important to keep in that mind frame.”
The Clippers also need to have a mind frame that’s playoff-focused. Despite last week’s loss to Memphis, they’re one game ahead of the Grizzlies in the conference standings at 46-21 compared to the Grizzlies’ 44-21 mark.
But the third-place Clippers are only one game in front of Memphis and the surging Denver Nuggets, who have won 11 in a row and are in a virtual tie with the Grizzlies for the fourth spot.
“We see where the standings are right now, and we have to play good, solid basketball,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “If we do that, we’ll get as high a seed as possible. But I’m more interested in us playing at a high level, getting everybody back healthy and hopefully continually improving as we get down to the last 15 or so games.”
Forward Caron Butler, who missed one game because of a strained left elbow, played Sunday and scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including four 3-pointers. But guard Eric Bledsoe sat out his third consecutive game with a sore left calf and hasn’t been able to practice for a while.
Once fully healthy, the Clippers believe they can put on a strong run over their last 15 games and either secure the No. 3 seed or perhaps push Oklahoma City for No. 2.
But it won’t be easy. It never is.
“We need to be more consistent,” Billups said. “We’re very inconsistent right now. I think that our early success may have gone to our head a little, but we need to buckle back down and know that this is a stretch run.
“Everyone is trying to fight for a position, but if we handle our business, we could be the No. 2 or 3 seed.”
That’s the plan. All they have to do it execute it.