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Sunday, March 10, 2013
Clippers locking into playoff mindset

By Arash Markazi

LOS ANGELES -- There is a white board in the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room, where the NBA standings are updated before every game. For the most part, the top of the standings haven't changed much since midway through the season.

The San Antonio Spurs have been in first place, followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Clippers. But when the Clippers entered their locker room Sunday night before playing the Detroit Pistons, the Memphis Grizzlies had taken the third seed by a mere percentage point, dropping the Clippers to fourth and just two games in front of the surging Denver Nuggets.

It was the first time since the beginning of the season that the Clippers were not one of the top three seeds in the West.

DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan's amazing dunk was one of the many highlights for the Clippers in their easy win over the Pistons on Sunday.
Sure, the Clippers once again reclaimed the third seed with their dominating 129-97 win over the Pistons on Sunday, but there isn't much wiggle room between them and the Grizzlies and Nuggets. They could easily drop from the 3-seed to the 4-seed in a matter of a week or two if things don't go their way.

In fact, the Clippers could drop to fourth again if the Grizzlies beat them Wednesday night at Staples Center.

Winning the Pacific Division will guarantee the Clippers a top four seed but you can throw the seedings out the window if a lower-seeded team finishes with a better record than the Clippers. The team with the better record would capture home-court advantage in any round. So for example in a possible 4-5 match-up, the Grizzlies and Nuggets would have homecourt as the five seed if they finish with a better record.

Though the Clippers have always said they are only focusing on the here and now, with 17 games left in the season, the focus has to shift toward the playoffs and getting the best seed and matchup possible.

It's only a matter of time before the Clippers capture their first division title and win 50 or more games in a season for the first time in franchise history. But it will be all for naught if they sputter down the stretch and are forced to open the playoffs on the road against Memphis or Denver.

They'd probably like to avoid Memphis and Denver altogether and try to face a team such as Houston, which has lost all three games against the Clippers this season.

As much as players and coaches don't want to admit they think about it, it's hard not to when the standings are staring back every time they enter the locker room. Chris Paul watches NBA League Pass religiously and admits he is now paying closer attention to the teams seeded around the Clippers.

"I think about it," Paul said. "But I think we're one of the few teams that are able to worry about what we do. If we play the right way and play the way we're capable of, we're tough to beat. Some teams go into games saying we got to stop this and we got to stop that, but I think for us if we play our style of pace and our basketball, we just have to worry about what we do."

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has started to track the games as well, looking at all the scenarios with the Clippers being four games from the 1-seed and two games from the 4-seed.

"You look at it, but there's still a lot of basketball," Del Negro said. "We have a lot of tough games coming up. There are no easy games and everyone is vying for position. But you have to play well. You have to win games to control your destiny, and we do right now."

Regardless of the Clippers' eventual seeding, they knew they were going to have to play better than they had after the All-Star break if they were going to go far in the postseason. Not only were they 2-2 in their last four games and 5-3 since the break; they had lost all three games to teams they could potentially meet in the playoffs (San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Denver). They're hoping Sunday's blowout win can now kick-start something that will carry over into their next game against Memphis.

"We have to keep building," Paul said. "Now is the time when you really start jockeying for position. Right now we're talking about building and playing the right way at that right time. Obviously, you want home court as much as possible, but I think our team is one where it really shouldn't matter, home court or not. We said that last year in the playoffs, but we would love to have home court as much as possible, but the bigger key is to make sure we're playing the right way."

Between Sunday's win over Detroit and next Sunday afternoon's game against the New York Knicks on ABC, the Clippers will play only one game: at home against Memphis on Wednesday. Del Negro says he hopes to use the time in between to shore up the Clippers' defense, which has been porous from beyond the arc and stagnant overall at times. The Clippers won't have much practice time at home after this week to work on improving those areas.

"The pressure is to improve throughout the season and to achieve what you can with these guys," Del Negro said. "I feel confident in our guys. I feel our best basketball is still ahead, but we have to go out and prove it. You obviously want to land as high as you can, but wherever you land you're going to have to play good basketball. … There's not going to be any easy rounds in the playoffs in the Western Conference, for sure. You're going to have to play very good no matter what seed you get."

While most might assume the Clippers' goal is to lock in the 3-seed, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan shook his head at that suggestion. With the Clippers four games behind the Spurs, with one game left against them this season and the season series on the line, Jordan said there was still plenty of time for the Clippers to make a push at the top seed in the West.

"We're still trying to catch the No. 1 seed," Jordan said. "We have to win games to do that. We just want to continue to win games and get home-court advantage for as long as possible."