Thursday, April 4, 2013
Clippers win 50th, take another step toward goals
By Arash Markazi
LOS ANGELES -- Before the season began, Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro had a list of goals he wanted his team to achieve by season's end.
He wanted to win 50 or more games.
He wanted to win the Pacific Division.
Chris Paul wanted to set new standards when he came to the Clippers, who won their 50th game Wednesday.
And he wanted to be a top-three seed in the Western Conference going into the playoffs.
The Clippers had never accomplished any of the above in the franchise's star-crossed history. Not in Buffalo. Not in San Diego. Not anywhere.
The Clippers took one more step into uncharted territory as a franchise Wednesday with their 126-101 win over the Phoenix Suns. The victory gave the Clippers an unprecedented 50 wins this season and brought them to within a victory -- or a Golden State loss -- of winning their first division title.
"We're doing some things for the first time that this franchise has never done," Del Negro said. "I'm proud of the guys for that. I'm proud of my staff, and it's something we want to give to the fans that have never experienced that. Those things are important, and hopefully we can build from that."
Building on that means, in part, creating some momentum heading into the playoffs so this greatest season in Clippers history doesn't end with a first-round exit. The Clippers are 1½ games back of the third seed in the West, and unless they get that seed, they could be opening up the first round of the playoffs on the road at either Denver or Memphis. Not exactly the kind of reward they were expecting after the season they've had.
But before the Clippers focused on the standings and their potential playoff opponent, they took a moment after Wednesday's win to soak in doing something that had never been done before in team history.
When Chris Paul came to the Clippers before last season in a trade that still touches a nerve among Los Angeles Lakers fans, he set out to change the culture of the team. He wanted to rewrite the Clippers' record book and in the process erase one bad streak after another.
He has done just that, and Wednesday night was just another step in the process.
"In the 43 years that the team has been around, never to have 50 wins, it's something special and it's nice to be a part of," Paul said. "It's something that's good for the team and the fans. Ever since I got here, we talked about setting a precedent. We expect to get at least 50 wins. We expect to get more, but it's good and it's something to enjoy."
The season before Blake Griffin was drafted, the Clippers won just 19 games. In his first season, which he missed because of injury, the Clippers won 29 games. When he won rookie of the year, the Clippers won just 32 games. If there's anyone on the Clippers who understands the progress the team has made over the past four seasons, it's Griffin.
"It's a big step for us, having never done it here before," Griffin said. "We feel like we can do much better. We feel like we could have been a 60-win team. It's something to be proud of, but the work doesn't stop there."
Winning 50 games, however, wouldn't mean as much if the Clippers weren't also one win from claiming their first division title, which is far more rewarding than reaching a victory milestone. The Clippers could have won the division Wednesday if the Warriors had lost to the New Orleans Hornets and might even be able to win it Friday -- a day they're off -- if the Warriors lose to the Suns. But the way it's shaping up now, if the Clippers want to win the division this week, they'll have to beat the Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon on national television.
It's as close as Los Angeles has ever gotten (and will get this season) to a Clippers-Lakers playoff matchup. The Lakers are playing for their playoff lives, while the Clippers are battling for home court in the first round. It's a high-stakes matchup that Paul is happy will mean something to both teams.
"I think it makes it more special. We want to win it on our terms," Paul said. "It would be another thing to be proud of for our fans."
The Clippers probably won't raise a Pacific Division championship banner in Staples Center as others in their position might. Sharing an arena with a 16-time NBA champion has its drawbacks from a perception standpoint. But winning the division and beating the Lakers in the process to do it would be yet another milestone for a team slowly reshaping its identity one win at a time.
"That's another step," Griffin said. "Getting to 50 wins is cool, but winning the division is another step. This was one of our goals coming in to the season, and we feel like this is what we should accomplish. But we don't want to sit back and say this season has been a success because we did that. We want much more than that."