State of the Clippers: Chauncey’s emergence

Chauncey Billups has been there. He understands the obstacles that can come between a team and the NBA Finals. He knows what it takes to win a championship.
 
He also knows this: The Clippers have a ways to go. Winning is not always about talent; it’s about doing the little things well consistently.
 
“Winning is really hard in this league,” Billups said. “Most teams do the big things really well, but it’s the small, detailed, intangible things that are going to take you to the top — or not. I think we have a ways to go with that, to be honest with you. But I think we can get there. We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do in that department.”
 
The Clippers are cruising into a six-day break for the All-Star game with 39 wins, a seven-game lead in the Pacific Division and the fourth-best record in the NBA. Even sweeter, their 125-101 wire-to-wire victory over the Lakers on Thursday night gave them a 3-0 lead in the season series.
 
If they can keep Billups healthy over the final two months of the season, they believe they can set their expectations high once the playoffs begin in April.
 
Billups started for only the seventh time this season on Thursday and scored 21 points in fewer than 17 minutes – his first 20-point game since January 2012. His importance to the team for the remainder of the regular season is viewed as critical to the Clippers’ postseason hopes.
 
“If you watch the games, you can see what he brings in terms of his leadership and his shot-making ability,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He stretches the defense, he takes pressure off everybody and he’s been in the big moments. He knows what it takes.”
 
Billups, 36, has been front and center in the postseason, winning an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2003-2004 and being named Finals MVP against the Lakers. He has played in two Finals and reached the final conference round four other times.
 
The Clippers have four players with championship rings: Billups, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Ronny Turiaf. But it’s Billups who is viewed as a team leader, holding the same stature among his teammates as Chris Paul.
 
Sadly, however, Billups’ time with the Clippers has been full of frustration. He played in only 20 games last season before suffering a torn left Achilles tendon in February and missing the team’s playoff run. He didn’t make his first start this season until Nov. 28 because he was rehabbing the injury, then went down again after three starts with tendinitis in his left foot.
 
He’s feeling healthy now, which makes a deep Clippers bench even deeper. And although he plays shooting guard, his presence on the floor allows Paul to give up the ball and work free for a shot.
 
“He’s still getting his rhythm and timing back,” Paul said. “One thing about Chaunce, you can’t give him much room at all. With me coming off those ball screens, you’ve got to pick your poison. Are you going to let me go, let Blake have it on the roll? And if you help out, Chaunce is going to knock it down.”
 
Case in point: Billups was 7 of 10 shooting Thursday and sank five three-pointers. When the Lakers made a second-quarter run and closed to within three points, Billups scored eight points in an 11-0 Clippers spurt.
 
Billups admits he’s still getting acclimated to playing off guard and not bringing the ball up the court, but you wouldn’t know it.
 
“It’s a difficult transition,” he said. “But for me, I just feel like I’m playing like I’ve always played when I’m out there. As long as I’m on the court, I’m going to find a way to be effective. That’s always been my mindset.”
 
Who’s Hot: As Chris Paul goes, so go the Clippers. In their current four-game winning streak, the Clippers point guard is averaging 20 points, 10.5 assists and 3.5 steals. He has three consecutive double-doubles, and in Thursday’s win finished with 24 points and 13 assists.
 
Who’s Not: More playing time for center Ryan Hollins has meant less for Ronny Turiaf. Del Negro insists that nothing should be read into the change except that he likes the energy that Hollins has provided off the bench. But Turiaf didn’t play at all in New York and saw garbage time against the Rockets and Lakers. His time may increase down the road, but right now Turiaf is a non-factor.
 
Three thoughts
 
1.     1. In contrast to the dysfunctional nature of the Lakers, the Clippers are one big happy family. Jamal Crawford, who signed in the offseason, still marvels at how hard he was recruited by Chris Paul and how well players have blended on and off the court. Winning helps. “The culture change is dramatic when you have the ability to win,” Del Negro said. “That’s just the way it works. A lot of things were in place before that, but when you start winning, guys start having a lot more confidence and understand the big picture. It’s the team first.”

2.     2. A week ago, forward Grant Hill seemed to be searching for his place on the team. But his performance Sunday in New York against Carmelo Anthony earned him a spot on the floor as a defensive stopper. “Grant gives you everything he can when he’s out there,” Del Negro said. “I have no hesitation to put out there at any point in the game.” Hill is 40 and looking at the downside of his career, but he may have found an important role as a defender.

3. The Clippers’ success may ultimately hinge on their ability to stay healthy. On their eight-game Grammy trip, no fewer than five players sat out one or more games with injuries, including four starters: Paul, Billups, Blake Griffin and Caron Butler. Reserve Lamar Odom left Thursday’s game in the second quarter after he was scratched in the left eye by the Lakers’ Steve Blake. He’s scheduled to see doctor Friday.
 
Quotes of the Week
 
“It’s cool, but it’s all about the postseason. It means nothing if we don’t do things in the postseason.”
 
— Chris Paul on going 3-0 this season against the Lakers
 
“If he doesn’t want to shoot, that’s fine with me.”
 
— Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, on Kobe Bryant taking just eight shots Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns (Bryant had 13 shots and 20 points Thursday against the Clippers)
 
“The mask was the best defender I’ve seen this year.”
 
— Jamal Crawford, on why he chose not to continue wearing a mask to protect his broken nose
 
What’s next?
 
After playing four games in five nights – and going 4-0 – the Clippers will enjoy six days between games. They return Feb. 21 against the conference-leading San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center and have just 26 games remaining in the regular season, 15 at home. Their 21-5 record at Staples is better than every conference team except the Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets.
 
Tower of Power?
 
Every time the Clippers slump, they find a way to recover and reassert themselves as one of the best teams in the league. They may have hit a rough patch by going 3-8 from Jan. 21 to Feb. 8, but a four-game winning streak will give them momentum when they resume play next week.