LOS ANGELES -- As Chris Paul put on the T-shirt hanging in his locker room, he looked down at it and smiled.
The shirt featured a picture of Muhammad Ali with “The Greatest” written in big, bold, black letters.
Moments earlier, Paul had scored a driving layup with five seconds left to give the Los Angeles Clippers a 98-97 comeback win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. It was the kind of proverbial knockout punch Paul has provided the Clippers time after time in clutch situations this season.
As Paul stood in the center of the Clippers' locker room, he laughed when he was asked about being the Clippers’ closer this season.
“This ain’t my first time,” said Paul, who finished with 20 points and 14 assists. “I’m used to it. I’ve been a starter every day since I’ve been in the NBA so I’ve been in this situation a number of times.”
When he was asked how many times he could continue putting his team on his back in the fourth quarter he simply said, “As many as it takes. It’s not just me. It’s a collective effort. We needed a defensive stop at the end. Caron [Butler] getting that big bucket. We just got to keep competing.”
There is no real secret to putting together a winning streak. There is often little difference between winning game one and winning game five but there has been something elusive to actually stringing wins together this season for the Clippers. For the first time since Feb. 1, the Clippers have now won four straight games and six straight at home.
The Clippers’ inability to win consistently obviously hasn’t been a problem confined to this season for the franchise. The last time the Clippers won five games in a row was November 2006. As far as winning streaks go, five is certainly not a big number. By comparison, the Utah Jazz, the Clippers’ opponent on Saturday, won six straight last week and won five straight earlier this season. If the season ended today the Jazz would not be in the playoffs.
“You obviously have to play well but this is such a strange season,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “The games jump on you so fast. The month of March has been very difficult trying to incorporate new guys and just the scheduling. It comes down to the execution of the gameplan and playing together. It’s always a work in progress.”
Streaks, of course, are more than just about the number of games won consecutively. They indicate how well a team is playing on a consistent basis and the Clippers simply haven’t been a consistently good team this season. They went over a month without winning consecutive games, and are just 15-14 in their last 19 games since losing Chauncey Billups for the season.
Despite being wildly inconsistent for the past two months and losing three games in three days last week, the Clippers have seemingly turned the corner when it matters most.
“Everyone was on coach, saying he lost the team and saying the guys were not responding and none of that was true at all,” Randy Foye said. “We just stuck with it. We stayed behind coach. We understand we played three games in three days against tough playoff teams in Indiana and Oklahoma and had an emotional game in New Orleans when Chris went back. We understood all that but everyone else didn’t. The main thing is to stay together whenever you hit a little bit of adversity.”
Foye, who finished with 20 points and 4 assists, hit a key 3-pointer with 47.8 seconds left to give the Clippers the lead and was one of six Clippers players that scored in double figures.
The Clippers now have a chance to do something on Saturday against Utah that the franchise hasn’t been able to do in six years -- win five games in a row. As small a milestone is that is, Foye wasn’t about to jinx what the Clippers have done.
“I think it’s important not to think of it as five games in a row,” Foye said. “We didn’t look past Portland and we’re not going to look past Utah.”