OKLAHOMA CITY -- Doc Rivers scoffs when anyone tries to make a big deal of regular-season games.
He says they’re important until they’re over and then they’re in the rearview mirror like every other game the Los Angeles Clippers have played.
You know how the old clichés go. Take it one game at a time. The next one is the most important. And so on and so forth.
But that’s not entirely true.
Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder mattered beyond the win-loss column and the standings. It was more than just a regular-season game. It was a chance for the Clippers to make a statement and show they are more than just a hyped team and paper contenders.
Legitimate contenders do that throughout the course of the season. Not every night, of course, but they give you glimpses of what they can do against the top teams in the NBA, especially on the road.
On Sunday, for perhaps the first time this season, the Clippers offered that glimpse and served notice that they were legitimate contenders after their 125-117 win over the Thunder.
Not only was it the Clippers’ biggest win of the season with just 24 games left in the regular season, but it was their first road win against a championship-contending team.
It was a record that wasn’t lost on the players as they sat on their chartered flight to Oklahoma City after losing back-to-back games against the Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies coming out of the NBA All-Star break.
“We were on the plane yesterday flying here and we were talking about how we hadn’t beaten any really good teams on the road,” said Chris Paul, who had 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds despite playing with a sprained right thumb. “This would be the perfect time to start. Doc was on us, telling us even in the playoffs you’re going to lose a home game at some point and you have to be able to win on the road. So hopefully this is a win that gets us going.”
Before Sunday, the Clippers' biggest win on the road after the first half of November was probably a comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks last month when Paul was injured. Dallas is currently the eighth seed in the West.
Of the teams with the top 12 records in the NBA, the Clippers are the only one without a winning record on the road. Even after Sunday’s win the Clippers are just 15-15 away from home while holding a 23-5 home record, which is tied with Oklahoma City for the best in the West. The problem is if the season ended today, the Clippers would start the playoffs on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers, another team they have yet to beat on the road this season, so the ability to win away from home is essential.
“This win was big for us,” said Blake Griffin, who had 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists. “We haven’t really made a statement on the road. We’ve won some games but we haven’t won big games, so this is great for us.”
As big as the win was, Rivers also understands there is a difference between winning big games in the regular season and winning big games in the playoffs.
“Honestly, I’d like to win them all. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win. But let’s say if we lose to them all until the end of the season, does that mean we can’t beat them in the playoffs?” Rivers said. “That’s the point. Obviously you would like to win. It gives you some kind of confidence that you can win on the road, but I don’t fret about it if you do or you don’t. I want to win every game. I don’t care where it’s at.”
Despite their struggles on the road, the Clippers have been a resilient team this season. They have had five two-game losing streaks but are one of only five teams in the NBA that hasn’t lost three straight games. This is the furthest into a season that a Clippers team has gone without losing three straight. The fact that they broke their most recent two-game skid with a win over the Thunder in Oklahoma City was all the more significant.
“We’ve talked the past two days how we haven’t beaten any contenders on the road,” said Matt Barnes, who had 24 points and hit six 3-pointers. “We got to start doing a better job on the road because in the playoffs that’s what it’s going to come down to. So I definitely think coming in here today after a tough loss is a big step for us.”
The Clippers, however, are still a game behind Houston and Portland for the 3-seed or at least having home-court advantage in a possible 4-5 matchup in the first round, and are three games behind the Spurs for the 2-seed. It’s a gap the Clippers can certainly overcome by the end of the season, but if they don’t they will have to figure out a way to win on the road if they want to achieve their goals.
“It’s a concern that I’d rather play better on the road but I’m not going to go back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re so bad on the road.’ I’m not going to worry about it,” Rivers said. “There’s nothing I can do about it except for keep coaching them and try to get them better. If you have a breakthrough that would be great and maybe that breakthrough comes in the playoffs. You don’t know but you can’t put too much on it. The regular season is more of an endurance test of your ability. We got guys injured and they have guys injured. Hopefully in the playoffs everybody on every team is healthy. That would be very nice.”
The injuries actually may have been a blessing in disguise earlier this season for the Clippers. They went went 14-6 without Paul but, more importantly, Paul saw the development of Griffin while he was out. Griffin is in the MVP conversation for the first time in his career and currently has a streak of 16 consecutive games with 20 or more points, which is the longest of his NBA career and the second-longest in the league this season.
“The biggest thing is when you see me and Blake’s relationship,” Paul said. “We talk all game long. I think we both realized how much we both need each other. When I was out I got a chance to really see his growth and how dominant he is. I’m out there to facilitate and pick my spots. I think we’re starting to really get that chemistry at the right time.”
As the Clippers went through airport security before boarding the bus to their chartered flight to New Orleans, players were laughing and joking with one another. Sunday's victory in Oklahoma City was just one win, but the significance of it and what might be happening with this team isn’t lost on them.
“Me, [DeAndre Jordan], Blake and Doc were talking on the flight the other day and we said, ‘This is our team,’” Paul said. “If we’re going to win it all, this is who we’re going to do it with. We have to get on one another and understand that we have one common goal. That’s what winning teams do. ... We talk a lot more than we used to in the past and try not to leave anything unsaid. We’re a family and we're playing like one.”