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Monday, April 2, 2012
Are these the real Clippers?

By Justin Verrier

In the span of one prolonged offseason, the young, exciting kids of the Los Angeles Clippers matured into full-grown contenders with equally advanced expectations. By trading for Chris Paul soon after the NBA reopened its gates, the franchise long viewed as the league’s punching bag set off on its attempt to make a “quantum leap” and rebrand itself as one capable of dishing out the heavy blows, with its new prized point guard out front, slamming the company drum as hard as Blake Griffin unloads on a rim.

Ever since he arrived in Lob City in mid-December, Paul has been on a mission to change the team’s culture, collecting club milestones along the way like they were part of a stamp collection. He even asked longtime announcer Ralph Lawler to alert him of any lengthy franchise losing streaks in early February after the Clippers beat the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City for the second time in 22 years.

The Clips hit another such mark Saturday night, easily dispatching that same Jazz team to win their fifth straight game, a first for the franchise since Nov. 2006. But when asked if the achievement meant something to him after the 105-96 victory, Paul didn’t feel inclined to add it to his list of keepsakes.

“No. … Not really,” said Paul, who had experienced 10 streaks of five wins or more in his previous six NBA seasons. “It’s five games. I mean, it’s cool, I guess, [since it hasn’t happened] since ’06. But that wasn’t that long ago. That ain’t a huge milestone. It’s five games.”

Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers coach who has yet to finish a season over .500 and whose seat has seemingly cooled to a simmer thanks to the recent streak, was a tad more sentimental.

“We talk about it a little,” Del Negro said. “There are a lot of those things that need to be checked off. It seems like we’re checking a bunch of them off, which is good.”

But the Clippers’ two stewards agree on one thing:

“You’ve got to strive for more than that,” Paul said.

“Our focus is bigger than that and our approach is bigger than that,” Del Negro said.

After a turbulent March stretch of 20 games in 31 days, during which the team’s outlook vacillated between contenders and complete disarray, you can’t blame the duo for not wanting to linger in the past. Especially with matchups against the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks, one spot below them in the Western Conference standings, and the Los Angeles Lakers, one spot ahead of them in both the West and the Pacific Division, on tap on Monday and Wednesday.

But L.A.’s recent five-game homestand could wind up being its most important of the season, more so for what it means for this team and its postseason hopes than for what it means for Clippers lore.
NBA Finals predictions began funneling in after Paul landed in L.A., and were only reinforced after two preseason wins against their Staples Center co-tenants and a relatively smoldering 7-3 start to the regular season, with home wins over both the Heat and the Lakers.

But three consecutive road losses two weeks ago seemed to put the team on the brink of collapse, with reports of Del Negro’s job being in jeopardy and locker room dissension sprouting up like weeds and a slide out of the playoffs completely a sudden, albeit unlikely, possibility.

With five wins at home this past week, the Clippers were able to call off the code red, and Del Negro was able to breathe a bit easier, his bosses (for what it’s worth) dishing out votes of confidences that will at least keep the second-year coach at the helm until the end of the season.

But they did little to answer the question lingering over this club since Paul’s much-ballyhooed L.A. entrance: Who is this team?

The Clippers rose into the national spotlight last season based solely on the strength of Griffin’s vicious dunks; the team became a must-watch every night, mostly through the fear of not being a part of the next thrilling moment he created. But despite playing a better brand of ball, the Clippers are far from the event they once were. The spunky upstarts traded in their cache, first for the role of a more likable Miami Heat, and ultimately settling in the second tier of teams behind the Thunder like most of the West.

But after a capricious past two weeks, the same guys who shied away from the “Lob City” nickname only to sport long-sleeved T-shirts, purchased by Caron Butler, with the moniker and logo on them, became just as hard to place in the NBA landscape.

Can the Clippers make a playoff run? Are they just setting themselves up as first-round bait? Will they ever reach the lofty status with which they began the season?

As welcome as these five victories were for a team in desperate need of a kick-start, few answers were provided for how to get back to where they started.

Three of the five wins came against teams in the thick of the playoff race, and while four finished with margins of nine points or more and three with their opponent being held under 90 points, only the Utah victory seemed to be the type of complete performance that qualifies as a satisfying win. And that’s only where the caveats begin: The final three wins came against teams on the back end of back-to-backs, and the first three are all mucked up by their opponents’ injury woes -- Zach Randolph still doesn’t look healthy, the 13-win Hornets were without their starting frontcourt and Grant Hill sat and Steve Nash probably should’ve two nights later.

Most of the problems that plagued their rough March, in which they finished 11-9, also remain: Blake Griffin is still a liability on defense, particularly late in games; they have no one to guard wings (an issue expounded upon by Professor Hollinger last week); the second unit tends to give up leads (Del Negro has recently left a starter in to anchor the reserve group); the defensive issues tend to put the onus on an offense lacking in creativity, something that only becomes more apparent in the team’s many close games; Nick Young, the team’s deadline pickup, has admittedly struggled to adapt to a role in the second unit after letting in fly in Washington; and so on …

And yet, it seems just as likely that this run of success could suddenly jolt this team back into the elite-level outfit that most pictured they’d be back in December, largely because of Paul’s presence.

The Clippers have just finished the most arduous month in NBA history with five straight home wins, all without Mo Williams or Chauncey Billups, with 10 new players added since the end of last season, on a team built more for next year than this one. They currently hold a tenuous grip on fourth place in the West, looking down on the Golden States rather than up, like they have for so many years.

Yet, with Paul out front for a core that, despite its many deficiencies, is still heavy on raw, developing talent, no team in the league, save maybe Memphis, seems more capable of pulling it all together late in this compacted, crazy regular season and pulling off a few surprises in the playoffs.

In these next two games against the Mavs and Lakers, ones that offer much in terms of playoff positioning and, in the latter’s case, personal gain, we may finally get some clarity.

“We have that sense of urgency, we just need to stay with it for long periods,” Del Negro said. “Every game is so tight right now in the race. The guys know what’s at stake. We need to go out and handle our business, take ‘em one at a time, reevaluate where we’re at and get ready to play.”