Clippers are still learning how to win

Blake Griffin is just one of several Clippers going through their first playoff race. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- Vinny Del Negro laughed when he was asked if he was concerned about Saturday afternoon’s game against the Golden State Warriors. It was in every sense of the word a “trap” game but Del Negro knows there are no such games anymore this late in the season.

“They all concern me,” Del Negro said. “To you guys they don’t but to me they do because we’re in a tight race. When you play, it either goes in the left side of the column or the right side of the column and I enjoy the left side much better.”

For the first time this season, the Clippers have finally started to adopt their coach’s age-old philosophy of treating every game, regardless of the opponent, the same. The same team that had inexcusably dropped games to New Orleans, Phoenix, New Jersey, Minnesota and Golden State last month hasn’t lost to a non-playoff team since March 22 when they lost to the Hornets.

Since that game nearly a month ago the Clippers have won 11 of 13 games, including six straight, the Clippers’ longest winning streak in 20 years. The Clippers' two losses since March 22 have come against the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies and were within one possession late. After the Clippers’ 112-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, the Clippers are now just one game behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division and two games ahead of the Grizzlies for the No. 4 seed in the West with just six games left in the season.

Before the game, Del Negro saw an old friend who works for the Warriors and laughed, “What are you guys putting in the water up there? Everyone is injured.” Well, that and they’re probably looking more toward the NBA draft now. On Saturday the Warriors were without Stephen Curry, David Lee, Richard Jefferson and Chris Wright. Against the Timberwolves on Thursday, Minnesota was without Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Darko Milicic, Luke Ridnour, Brad Miller and Wayne Ellington. These teams weren’t just undermanned they were completely depleted and lucky to even put a team on the court. Even so, these were the kind games against the kinds of teams the Clippers found ways to lose last month while playing a brutal stretch of 20 games in 31 days.

“We can’t take anybody lightly,” Del Negro said. “We have to take the approach that we can improve and get better as a team. I know it’s hard to believe but we’re a young team in terms of not being together that long so any time we have together to improve is very valuable at this stage in the season.”

Before these types of games against teams playing for draft positioning rather than playoff positioning, Chris Paul makes sure remind his teammates of what they are playing for and the fact that their opponent has nothing to play for. In case they forget, all they have to do is look up at the standings that are clearly posted and updated in front of the locker room before and after every game.

“It’s all about locking up that playoff spot,” said Paul, who had 28 points and 13 assists. “Anything can happen once you get in. I think if we win our next one we’ll clinch and that is what it’s all about for us right now.”

This is the first playoff race for many key players on the Clippers such as Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe. Normally games in April are the precursor to an early vacation. Now they are preparing the Clippers for what they will face next month in the postseason.

“We’re learning how to win,” Del Negro said. “Knowing how to win in this league is hard. It’s easy to play in this league but it’s hard to win. We’re learning as a group what it takes to win and it takes time. Sometimes you get some bumps in the road but we’re trying to move this thing in the right direction.”