It’s possible the Clippers are simply in a mini-slump, that they’ll correct their flaws in time for the playoffs and that the losses they’re suffering against the NBA’s elite teams will be gone and forgotten once the regular season ends.
There’s time to fix things. They can get more aggressive on defense, do a better job preventing 3-point shots, hold early leads, make plays late and reduce turnovers.
It’s also possible the Clippers are facing a cold reality: They’re a good team but their hopes of reaching the NBA Finals – or even the Western Conference finals – might be too far out of reach, at least this season.
“We need to start beating some of the upper-echelon teams,” coach Vinny Del Negro said – and that was before the Clippers lost at home to the Memphis Grizzlies, 96-85, Wednesday night. “We haven’t done that. I’d like to see us play with an edge, with an intensity, with an understanding what’s at stake.”
Right now, seeding is at stake, and the Clippers are not in the best position. They’re looking at a first-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets, who won two of three games in their series and own the best home record in the league at 29-3.
The Clippers are a half game behind the Grizzlies for the No. 3 seed in the conference, but they’re two games behind in the loss column and would need help to finish ahead of them in the standings. Worse, they’re only one game in front of the Nuggets, who would hold the tiebreaker edge and gain home-court advantage should they end up with the same records.
Del Negro is paying attention, as he should, to possible seedings, but he also knows that the Clippers can determine their own fate, at least to a degree.
“You look at (the seedings),” he said. “I do, but there’s still a lot of basketball. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up; there’s no easy games. Everyone’s vying for position, but you have to play well. You have to win games and control your destiny, and we do right now. So we have to start playing better. I don’t think we’ve played well in a while. I don’t think our defensive intensity is where it needs to be, our offensive execution, just overall. … We’ve got to get that edge back.”
Chris Paul said as much after the loss to the Grizzlies, citing the need for more energy and intensity. But it’s also about defense. The Clippers, for example, allowed Memphis to shoot 54 percent for the game and over 60 percent for three quarters.
That’s a big difference between the Clippers early in the season and the Clippers now.
“Early on, when we were winning games and had that (17-game winning) streak, and even before that, the way we played defensively was aggressive,” Griffin said. “We messed up at times, our rotations weren’t great at times, but I thought for the most part we did a great job forcing teams to figure out what to do against our defense.”
Maybe the Clippers will get it back. Maybe this is just a blip on the screen and there’s really nothing to worry about. But if they still have their sights set on winning a title, now is the time to fix whatever is wrong.
“One thing about this profession,” forward Lamar Odom said. “One day you can feel like you’re on top of the world, and then there are those days when you feel like it’s the end of the world. You just have to realize that anything besides winning a championship is coming up short.”
Chris Paul is a pass-first point guard, but he’s upped his scoring at a time the Clippers need it. He has scored 20 or more points in his past two games and four of his past seven while also averaging 10.8 assists this month. He also reached a milestone on Wednesday, becoming the sixth NBA player to have at least 10,000 career points and 5,000 assists before the end of his eighth season.
That sure didn’t look like Jamal Crawford on the court Wednesday night. After missing two games recovering from a sore left ankle, the Clippers reserve guard missed 9 of 10 shots in his return and was 0 for 4 from 3-point range. That was undeniably his worst offensive game of the season, and it came after he had put up four consecutive 20-point contests.
1. Where was center DeAndre Jordan against the Grizzlies? He played just 20 minutes (four points, two rebounds) and was on the floor for only eight minutes in the second half. Against big bodies like the Grizzlies, an inside presence would have been helpful. It makes you wonder if Jordan has worked his way into Del Negro’s doghouse.
2. The Clippers are still looking for a statement win, especially after losing in the past five weeks to Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City – three teams that are generally considered title contenders. They’ll have a few more chances before the regular season ends, though: Sunday’s game against the New York Knicks, a road game at San Antonio on March 29 and another road game at Memphis on April 13. If nothing else, winning at least one of those games will be a boost to their confidence.
3. Injuries have been a significant impediment to the Clippers for most of the season, but losing starter Caron Butler for a week or more with a left elbow strain already is having an impact on the bench. Forward Matt Barnes is starting in place of Butler, which means the team loses a strong player on the break and a confident 3-point shooter. Once Butler returns and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe is fully healthy from a sore left calf, the Clippers should have a more productive bench, something they’re woefully missing these days.
Quotes of the Week
“I think it’s important how you go into the playoffs, how you’re playing, the continuity of the team. All those things mean something, so I don’t think you can let off the gas that much, especially in the West.”
–Clippers guard Chauncey Billups
“If you could break Chris Paul’s legs, that might help.”
–Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, on how to stop alley-oop passes from Paul to the Clippers’ big men
“I’m not afraid of the Lakers or anybody else in the West or anybody else in the league. We’ve beaten everybody.”
–Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, on whether he’s afraid of facing the Lakers in the playoffs
The Clippers still have one of the best home records in the league (25-8), so they should benefit from playing three of four games next week at Staples Center. But they also close the month with a four-game road trip that includes stops at Dallas, New Orleans, San Antonio and Houston. They’ll know a lot more about themselves by the time March is over.
Tower of Power?
With losses in three of five games and a 13-12 record since Jan. 21, the Clippers appear to have halted construction on the skyscraper they were building. They need to create momentum through the end of the regular season; if not, they’ll be little more than a small office building.