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Thursday, April 11, 2013
Next mission: Home court in 1st round

By Arash Markazi

LOS ANGELES -- Now comes the hard part.

Last week the Los Angeles Clippers clinched their first 50-win season, the division title and swept the season series against their in-building rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.

They accomplished all of the regular-season goals they set for themselves when training camp opened six months ago.

Well, all except for one.

The Clippers want to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and had been hoping to nab a top-three seed in the West, as well.

While winning the Pacific Division technically gives the Clippers no worse than the No. 4 seed, if the No. 5 seed (the Memphis Grizzlies right now) finishes with a better record than the Clippers (and the Grizzlies would at the moment), the No. 5 seed will have home-court advantage despite owning a lower seed.

That’s why the Clippers are in a similar position as their hallway neighbors entering the final stretch of the regular season. While the Lakers are scoreboard-watching and must win out just to make the playoffs, the Clippers need to do the same if they want to have home-court advantage in the first round.

After the Clippers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-95 on Wednesday night, Matt Barnes was on his iPhone trying to update the NBA scoreboard.

“Does anyone know if Denver won?” he asked as he furiously slid his finger up and down the screen to no avail.

When he was told the Nuggets had defeated the San Antonio Spurs 96-86, he shook his head, put his phone in his locker and went to the shower.

The win gives Denver a two-game cushion for the No. 3 seed with four games remaining, while the Grizzlies already have one game lead for home court in a potential first-round matchup of Nos. 4 and 5 seeds.

Since the Clippers play the Grizzlies on Saturday, they control their own destiny when it comes to clinching home court in the first round as the No. 4 seed. If the Clippers want to get the No. 3 seed, they must win out and hope Denver loses two of its last four games, against Dallas, Portland, Milwaukee and Phoenix. That’s why it was so vital that San Antonio beat Denver, to get one of those losses out of the way.

The Clippers have been a solid road team this season, going 21-17 outside of Lob City. That’s by far the best road record in team history and the sixth-best road mark in the league. Still, Chris Paul knows how important starting the playoffs at home would be for the Clippers in the postseason.

“It’s very important,” Paul said. “During the regular season you have to build some type of identity on the road, because even with home-court advantage you need to be able to win a game on the road. We understand with the seeding right now, at some point we’re not going to have home-court advantage.

“We’d love to play here as much as possible, but I think we have a team that it really doesn’t matter.”

There are some within the Clippers organization who will say home court isn’t really a necessity given what the Clippers were able to do last season. They point to the fact that the Clippers were able to comeback from 24 down with less than eight minutes left to beat the Grizzlies in Memphis in Game 1 of the first round, then were able to close out the series in Game 7 back at the FedEx Forum.

That was a different team. There are nine new Clippers players on this squad.

“Every year is different,” Paul said. “You just don’t think about it. Whether you have home court or not, you still have to play the games. And I think for us right now, it’s about making sure we play the right way.

“As long as we play the right way, we control our destiny.”

The Clippers have finally started playing the right way, winning three straight for the first time since the end of February. It also snaps the Clippers out of a funk they had been in, losing eight of 14 games and going 17-17 after the first half of the season.

“Our past three games, our defense has been really good and our energy has been up,” Paul said. “We just have to keep it up. For a while there we were always a step late, and we’re talking a lot more and the energy has picked up.”

“We’re still not perfect, but we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “We just said enough is enough. We were tired of losing. We kept talking that we didn’t want to back into the playoffs.”

Outside of wanting to win their final four games to get home court in the first round, the Clippers also would like to head into the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak and recapture the same feeling they had when they won 17 straight in December. The Clippers’ longest streak since then has been four games.

“You don’t want to be on a three-game losing streak going into the playoffs,” Paul said. “I’ve been in that situation where we lost three of our last four games and we got beat 4-1 by Denver in 2008-09. You just want to make sure you’re going in with a positive feeling.”

As important as home court in the first round would be, the Clippers also understand if they get past the first round and go as far as they would like, they will have to win games on the road.

“Right now, unfortunately, the only time we’d have home court probably is in the first round,” Blake Griffin said. “That’s still huge for us, and that alone should really help us focus and really lock down with that kind of urgency.”