MILWAUKEE — The music was blasting, and the Los Angeles Clippers were singing and dancing along. Meanwhile, off in the corner of the visitors’ locker room at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, veterans Chris Paul and Caron Butler were having a conversation.
Somehow the two could hear each other over the music and jubilation of a team that had just won its ninth game in a row, but the message relayed between them might be more important than the winning streak.
The Clippers routed the Milwaukee Bucks, 111-85, Saturday to run their winning streak to nine games, their longest streak since the franchise moved to California in 1978 and second only to their 11-game winning streak in 1974 as the Buffalo Braves.
But Paul and Butler weren’t discussing that. Instead they admitted to each other that of course, the Clippers are going to lose sometime again, but the focused mindset this team has displayed on a nightly basis is incredibly valuable.
“It’s tough because you forget what it’s like to lose,” Paul said. “The thing is, we are staying focused. This was almost one of those trap games. You are off for three days and they had a back-to-back, they played last night. You could come in here and just think the game is going to come to you, but we approached it the right way.”
The talk around the arena pregame centered on one question: Just how good are the Clippers?
There’s little doubt that last year’s Clippers were talented and had a fantastic season, but they might have been more show than go. This year, Los Angeles is more than that. The Clippers are one of the NBA’s elite teams that just happens to put on a show every time they take the floor.
Paul and Blake Griffin are superstars, but they aren’t the only reasons this team is winning. Every man on the roster has a role. The bench is deep and full of energy, and the veteran leadership is strong. The Clippers mix players who have been there before with talent that hasn’t.
“I’m pleased we are finding different ways to win, a total team effort,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We have to have the mindset of getting better. Hopefully we can get Chauncey (Billups) and Grant (Hill) back and be even deeper and stronger. I’m obviously very pleased.”
Saturday night it was forward Matt Barnes who led the way with 21 points off the bench. Many of the Clippers have credited Barnes, a veteran of some deep playoff runs, with adding something the team has lacked: toughness.
“A lot of stuff Matt does doesn’t show up on the box score, it just doesn’t,” Paul said. “He’s one of those guys that’s changed the identity of our team. He gives us that toughness that we always needed. His ability to guard anybody is unreal.”
Rebounding is something that has hurt Los Angeles this season in its losses, but the Clippers appear to be trending upward in that category. The Bucks entered Saturday’s game on an impressive rebounding run, but Los Angeles outrebounded them by nine.
“Our biggest thing is we have to rebound the ball,” Del Negro said. “When we rebound the basketball and play well defensively, we can put a lot of pressure on you offensively because we have good guys that can space the court. With Chris with the basketball a lot of good things happen, with Blake with the basketball a lot of good things happen.
“We run things through them a lot, but everybody is contributing, everybody has been filling in where they need to. You win as a team, lose as a team, and I think we are getting a better feel for that, especially on the road.”
The Clippers have completely changed the mindset of a franchise that frankly hasn’t had a good one for a number of years, playing second fiddle to the Lakers in their own town.
Sure, nine wins in a row is the number that is being talked about, but the leadership in the locker room that has kept the team grounded and focused on a bigger prize is remarkable, even if it is only 23 games into a long NBA season.
“What we have here is a goal to win a championship,” Barnes said. “We just have to focus on what we need to do out there. This is a very talented league. We have to focus on what we need to do, and if we stay healthy we are going to be alright.”