The first half of the regular season went about as well as could be expected for the new-look Los Angeles Clippers. They lost some games they should have won, they won some games they should have lost and looked far better than any team in franchise history. Then again, we are talking about a franchise that has only made the postseason four times in the past 35 years. In fact they have already won more games so far this season than they have in eight previous complete seasons.
The real test, however, for the Clippers will come during the second half of the season, when they will be tested with the most grueling stretch of games that any player or coach on the team said they have ever been a part of. Here are eight storylines to track as the Clippers head into the stretch run of their season.
1. March on
The Clippers' season will be shaped, for better or for worse, during the month of March when the team will play 20 games in 31 days, including six road games in nine days to start the month. “Beast,” said Clippers guard Chris Paul when asked about the month. “But we knew that when the season started.”
No team played fewer games or traveled less to start the season than the Clippers. From Dec. 29 to Feb. 3, they only had to leave Staples Center four times. During that stretch players and coaches smiled and said the schedule would soon even up and catch up with them and it certainly will now as the Clippers start to make a push for playoff seeding.
“It’s important when you’re a young team to try to get home court, especially having so many guys on our team that have never played in the playoffs,” Paul said. “It would definitely be a huge advantage for us. I was telling all the guys in the locker room, all the games are over; teams are going to start jockeying for position. Guys are not going to be sitting out and resting anymore.”
2. On the road again
Playing nine road games in the first 22 days in March and nine of their final 14 games in April on the road will be a test for the Clippers, but they have proven to be a good road team this season. The Clippers have won seven of their last 10 road games this season and have won five of those games after coming back from a deficit of 10 or more points. Prior to this season, the Clippers' last four road wins in which they overcame a double-digit deficit came in four different years from 2008 to 2011. The Clippers, however, will have less rest in between games than they did to start the season, which has not been lost on the players as they look at the schedule now.
“The stat that I heard was from January to April 19 we play every other day,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “We don’t have more than two days off in between games during that stretch and that’s unreal. That’s crazy.”
3. Crucial back-to-back-to-back
Perhaps the biggest three-game stretch for the Clippers will take place March 20-22, when they go on the road to face the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Hornets. Unless the Clippers swing a trade with the Pacers before the trade deadline, the real storylines for the Clippers’ last back-to-back-to-back of the season will come against the Thunder and the Hornets.
Griffin will be returning home to Oklahoma on March 21 to face the team with the best record (at least for now) in the West and a possible opponent in the NBA playoffs. It will also be the first time Griffin will face Thunder center Kendrick Perkins since making him a trending topic on Twitter worldwide for all the wrong reasons.
The next night Paul will play his first game back in New Orleans since being traded from the Hornets in December and the Clippers will face former teammates Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu for the first time since they found out they were being dealt for Paul while on a bus tour of Los Angeles, performing community service projects.
4. Potential trades
It seems the Clippers’ 15-man roster is set at the moment but Clippers general manager Neil Olshey and coach Vinny Del Negro have said they are still open to making moves to improve the team. Could the Clippers potentially put together a package to get a shooting guard to fill the void left by Chauncey Billups’ season-ending Achilles injury last month? If Bobby Simmons, who was signed to a 10-day contract by the Clippers on Monday, doesn’t pan out, maybe the Clippers might be motivated to make a deal to get one more shooter on the team to help what has been a one-dimensional second unit when it comes to scoring. Mo Williams, who is a leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, has accounted for 52.7 percent of the Clippers’ scoring off the bench this season.
5. Chauncey Billups factor
Even though Billups was lost for the season last month, he is expected to return to Los Angeles next month to start his rehab. Billups won’t be able to contribute to the team on the court but players and coaches have talked about how much Billups will provide on the bench and in practices with his knowledge and experience. His presence will be felt in the huddle as the only player on the team who was on the court for a championship-winning team. Clippers forward Caron Butler won a title last year with the Dallas Mavericks but was injured and on the sideline during the team's run. The Clippers are hoping Billups will provide a similar leadership role as Butler did on the Mavericks’ championship team last season, this year with the Clippers.
6. Lob City police
There is certainly a good amount of glitz and glamour associated with these Clippers with their “Lob City” nickname, remixed YouTube songs and oversize billboards throughout the city, but the team’s newfound toughness has come from two players that weren’t even on the court when the season began. Forwards Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin have not only given the team a mean streak it didn’t have before, but they have given the second unit a spark it didn’t have at the beginning of the season. The biggest difference they have made has been in the rebounding department where the Clippers went from dead last in the league to start the season to the upper half of the league at the halfway mark.
In their last eight games the Clippers have outrebounded their opponents 389-303. They have outrebounded their opponents in 11 straight games and have had more offensive rebounds in nine straight games. The Clippers have also totaled six games with more than 50 rebounds, which ranks third in the NBA.
7. Battle for L.A.
The Clippers currently lead the Pacific Division after splitting their two games with the Lakers in the regular season and sweeping both preseason games. Both teams got to see plenty of each other to start the season, playing four times in a 30-day span, but they will not see each other again until April 4. That game could not only go a long way in not only deciding which team will win the division but which team will win the mythical battle of Los Angeles.
The last time these two teams played each other, Paul took exception to Lakers forward Pau Gasol touching his head towards the end of the game. The question now is whether or not Gasol will even be with the Lakers when the two teams play each other again.
8. Closing out
If the Clippers can close out the season as well as they have closed out games for the most part this season, they should be in good position. The Clippers have come back from double-digit deficits to win six times this season, including an 18-point deficit at Portland this month. Whereas the Clippers of the past found new and exciting ways to blow big leads late, this year’s squad has found ways to win games that are seemingly over, many times on the road.
“The fourth quarter is winning time,” Paul said. “That’s the mentality I have and this team has now. We expect to win every game we’re in.”