Games That Count

Chris Paul was asked after a recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs whether the Clippers still should be considered an elite team. They also had recently lost badly to the Miami Heat.

“Well, we split with the Heat 1-1, and we’re 2-1 against the Spurs,” he said.

He's right about that.

But those wins took place before Nov. 20, and happened within the first 10 games of the season. Wins are wins, but the current versions of the Heat and Spurs barely resemble the pre-Thanksgiving versions of either team.

“I don’t pay too much attention to right now,” Paul continued. “We’re still getting back. This isn’t the time when it matters.”

He’s wrong about that.

The playoffs haven’t begun, and the Clippers are nearly a lock for a top-four seed in the Western Conference, but now is the time when the games do begin to matter. Now is the time when you measure yourself against the best teams in your conference, when you learn who you are and what you really have.

The Clippers’ record (42-18) suggests they are in elite NBA company, along with the Spurs, Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Their win Thursday night against the Indiana Pacers, as well as a win over the New York Knicks two weeks ago, suggests they can play at a high level in a playoff-like atmosphere.

But will they be able to sustain that level, and raise it a notch, in a seven-game series with a team like San Antonio, which the Clippers face again in late March, or Oklahoma City, which comes to Staples Center on Sunday?

Consistency has been an issue of late. After a 16-0 record in December, the Clippers are 17-12, in a stretch that has included two four-game winning streaks and two four-game losing streaks. They dispatched a hot Pacers team on the road Thursday, but not before surrendering big leads at the end of the first half and late in the fourth quarter. They have easily handled showdowns with their crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, but they are 0-2 against the Thunder and recently lost to the Spurs by 26 and the Heat by 22, falling behind by at least 32 points in the second half of each game.

There are ways to explain the losses -- Paul and Chauncey Billups didn’t play in the previous Oklahoma City game and were rusty, just returning from injuries, in the Miami game. But explanations are cold comfort come playoff time, and sustained effort and focus is critical down the stretch, making Sunday’s game with Oklahoma City a crucial gauge of who the Clippers are and can be.

If they do prove ready for a deep postseason run, the biggest reason will be Paul, who looked healthy and in command against Indiana, willing the team through several patches when his teammates’ lack of focus on defense threatened to give away the game, and scoring the team’s final eight points to seal the deal.

Paul had 29 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds and was as aggressive, start to finish, as he has been all season.

“You’ve got to hate to lose,” he later told reporters.

Paul has gotten a lot of credit for turning the Clippers’ attitude and culture around in the past two seasons, and rightly so. But he must know early-season wins over the league’s best teams are meaningless in the spring.

Inspiring his team to play its best against the best, and his teammates responding, committing to play at the same intensity that he does, here and now, is all that matters.

At least until April.

When doing it all over again will matter even more.