LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers dug deep last week, pulled themselves out of a near tailspin and seemingly have things headed in the right direction with a three-game win streak.
Now comes the hard part.
Their dominant 111-95 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night at Staples Center capped a three-game run in which the Clippers defeated the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Timberwolves by an average margin of 18.3 points.
Those victories all came at home, however, and now the Clippers end the season with three of four on the road. At stake is home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“We have to lock in as much as possible," coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We want to give ourselves the best opportunity to finish as high as possible. We’re trying to get home court in the first round, and the only way we’re going to do that is winning these games.”
As of now, the Clippers (52-26) are the No. 4-seeded team in the Western Conference and would be face the Memphis Grizzlies (53-25) in the first round of the playoffs. Despite being seeded higher, however, the Clippers would start the series on the road because home-court advantage goes to the team with the better overall record.
In order to earn the home-court advantage, the Clippers must prove themselves as road warriors. They play Friday at New Orleans (27-51) and then have a critical game Saturday at Memphis, which could decide which team has the home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"It’s a big game that we need,” forward Blake Griffin said of the game at Memphis. “We should compete the same way every single time, but we’ll know what’s at stake, so it’ll be a big game.”
If they play the way they have the last three games, it shouldn’t be a problem. Before the current win streak, the Clippers had lost three in a row and four of five. After losing to the Indiana Pacers on April 1, the team leaders made it a point to raise the focus and energy level of the team.
"If we lose, it can never be because of lack of effort," Griffin said. "It has to be because a team played better than us. I think that's been our main focus the past three games. We played with a lot of intensity, a lot of pace.”
Doing that at home with the crowd behind you is one thing. On the road, you don’t get to feed off of that energy, so these next two games will be a big test to show if the Clippers are, indeed, back to the level they were during their 17-game win streak in December.
"[The energy] has to be just as good, if not better, on the road," Griffin said. "There’s a lot at stake there, so I think we’re looking forward to that challenge as a team and giving ourselves kind of a measuring stick, especially after these last three games."
The Clippers are 21-17 on the road this season, which is the fourth-best road record in the Western Conference, but are a meager 11-13 in road games in 2013. They were 24-19 from January through March, but a meeting of the minds between Griffin and Chris Paul seems to have turned things back toward a playoff run.
“It definitely starts with me and Blake on the offensive and the defensive end,” Paul said. “When me and him are on the same page, everyone else has no choice but to fall in line, so me and Blake realize that we have to bring the energy every night and everyone else will feed off of it.”
The Clippers will be playing road games on back-to-back nights this trip and need to win both. The last time they swept road games on back-to-back nights was Jan. 14-15 at Memphis and Houston.
Center DeAndre Jordan said improved team chemistry would help as they head out for these important road games.
“When you go on the road, it feels like you’re playing against everybody,” Jordan said. “It’s really us against the fans, the other team, everything gets involved. So as long as our core is tight and everyone is linked together and there is no real splinter, we can win a lot of games on the road.”
Not only are they finishing with three of four games away from home, their last four games also come in the form of a pair of games on back-to-back nights.
After returning from Memphis, the Clippers face the Portland Trail Blazers at home on April 16 then go to Sacramento for the regular-season finale April 17 against the Kings. It could be the final game for the Kings in Sacramento, so there figures to be some added emotion.
Still, Paul said, if the Clippers want to prove themselves as a championship-caliber team, they will have to win these important games under difficult circumstances.
“I say this every game, but we just have to make sure we’re playing the right way,” Paul said. “Regardless of who we play against or where we’re playing at, as long as we’re playing the right way, we control our own destiny."