Clippers must figure out a way to improve

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
11:54
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers would have you believe that Wednesday's 96-85 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was just another game on their schedule.

"Regular-season games are regular-season games," forward Blake Griffin said. "It's important to win them, but the games we're looking forward to are the games in the playoffs."

Maybe the Clippers have started to look forward to the playoffs too much and have lost sight of the ongoing regular season.

[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMarc Gasol and the Grizzlies outworked the Clippers on Wednesday and Memphis rolled to a victory over L.A. at Staples Center.
Yes, technically Wednesday was just another regular-season game. It was just one of 16 more the Clippers will play before the playoffs begin, but there was something more on the line.

In the short-term, sole possession of the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs was on the line, and in the bigger picture, the Clippers needed to get a victory over a West playoff team, something they haven't done since before the All-Star break. In fact, the Clippers are 0-6 against teams seeded sixth or higher in the West since Jan. 14. In other words, they're 0-6 over the past two months against teams they could face in the first round of the playoffs.

"We need to start beating some of the upper-echelon teams," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We haven't done that. I'd like to see us play with an edge and with an intensity of what's at stake. Our guys know that. Talking about it is one thing, but we have to go out there and perform. We've won some games of late, but we've lost to a few top-tier teams and that doesn't sit well with me or anyone on this team."

It shouldn't. While the rest of the top teams in the league are playing their best basketball of the season, the Clippers seem to be regressing. The Grizzlies have won 14 of their past 15 games, with their lone loss coming at Miami by seven points. The Denver Nuggets have won 10 straight games and everyone knows the Miami Heat have won 20 straight.

Meanwhile, the Clippers have lost three of their past five and are 6-4 since the All-Star break, with all four losses coming to Western Conference playoffs teams.

"I expect a lot from this team, but we're not playing at a high enough level against the top teams right now for long enough stretches to have success," Del Negro said. "No question it's a concern."

Clippers players and coaches used to bring up the fact they had defeated the Heat, Spurs and Thunder in the past but with the Clippers now 0-5 against those teams since Nov. 20, there's no point in sugarcoating the reality that most of the Clippers' big wins came before the holidays and mean very little now.

"There's a gap there because San Antonio has won championships and Oklahoma City has been together five years and went to the [NBA] Finals and have been through playoff series," Del Negro said. "This is our first real year together as a group. Last year we had a taste of it during the lockout-shortened season with the core of our guys. So I expect us to continually improve. Talking about it is one thing, but the last time we played those teams they beat us pretty handily. I have tremendous confidence that we'll play much better than we did. … [But] you have to go out there and get yourself the best seed possible. Playoff basketball is different."

Playoff basketball is certainly different, but if the Clippers' recent performance against playoff teams is any indication, they will have to be much better than they currently are to advance past the first round.

"One of my old coaches used to tell me and another player that you're pretty good as is, but I'm going to need you to be 1 percent better," Chris Paul said. "I got to be better, Blake has to be better, everybody has to be better."

One of the more frustrating parts for the Clippers about their past four losses is that three of them have come at Staples Center. Teams have come into their home and imposed their will on them. In each of the losses, the opponent has opened up a double-digit lead on the Clippers and taken control.

"This game meant more to them, and that's the way that they played," Griffin said. "They played better, they played hungrier. That's not what we want to do and that's not how we want to play. It's very disappointing."

The Clippers are now the No. 4 seed and just one game ahead of surging Denver. A first-round matchup with the Nuggets would be bad enough, but if the Nuggets, who are 29-3 at home this season, have home court, the Clippers could be looking at a first-round exit.

"There's too much basketball left to be saying who you're going to be playing [in the playoffs]," Del Negro said. "We just want to be playing good, sound, winning basketball. We've been winning some games, but we haven't been beating the top-tier teams as of late, we beat them earlier in the season. I'd obviously like to see us have that intensity right now and see where we're at."

Paul said he was more concerned with how the Clippers were currently playing than what seeding they will have or who their playoff opponent might be. None of that really matters if the Clippers don't improve.

"I couldn't care less what seed we are," Paul said. "We need to be playing the right way when the time comes and we're not there yet."

Not only are the Clippers not there yet, but many in the locker room were confused why they aren't there, knowing they'll need to figure it out fast if they want to have any kind of playoff success.

"I don't know what it is," DeAndre Jordan said. "But we have to figure out soon what it is or it's going to be a quick postseason."

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Blake Griffin
PTS AST STL MIN
23.0 3.0 1.0 38.0
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsD. Jordan 10.0
AssistsC. Paul 7.0
StealsC. Paul 3.0
BlocksM. Barnes 2.0