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|Chris Paul knows it's not enough to have fun. The Clippers have to win.|
Those days are over.
As important as it was to rewrite the Los Angeles Clippers' record book this past year, Paul has his sights set on bigger goals in 2013. He wants to add new pages and new chapters to the story of a team that has never been this good and has never had these kinds of expectations.
As impressive as the Clippers' start to 2012-13 season has been, perhaps the most impressive aspect of it is that the Clippers are not being talked about as a playoff-contending team anymore; they're now being talked about as a championship-contending team.
For years, simply making the playoffs was seen as a goal for the Clippers. After all, the franchise had had only two winning seasons since 1977 before Paul arrived in Los Angeles last season.
But the franchise's previous goals and records no longer fall in line with this team's goal and records.
The moment when this team realized that was on Nov. 26, when the Clippers lost to the lowly New Orleans Hornets at home and watched the opposing players celebrate as if they had won the championship. The Clippers had always talked about playing with a target on their back, but it never really hit them until they saw Greivis Vasquez and Austin Rivers act as if they had upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. It was the moment the Clippers truly realized they were no longer just another game on the schedule but rather teams were circling them the way they had done with the Lakers for years.
"It's a big win to beat us," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said at the time. "So, take that as a compliment, but there's also responsibility that goes with that. If you don't want guys celebrating, then go do your job and we'll do the celebrating."
The Clippers rose to that challenge and followed that loss by winning 15 straight games by an average margin of 16.3 points and have won 11 of their 15 games by 12 or more points. Rather than wilting under expectations, they decided to embrace them.
And the city took notice.
The Clippers' play not only has invigorated their long-suffering fan base but also has attracted several newcomers to Lob City. Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Floyd Mayweather, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West all have been courtside during the streak. Suddenly, the Clippers are not only the best basketball team in Los Angeles but are beginning to challenge the Lakers when it comes to star power in the crowd, as well.
The stakes are rising game by game. But if the pressure of the expectations and attention is getting to them, it doesn't show.
As much fun as the Clippers are having on the court, they seem to be having even more fun off it. Postgame in the team's locker room is a cross between a variety show and a day care center. As players' kids run around the locker room, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will try to one-up each other by disrupting their teammates in the middle of interviews. Griffin recently walked through a Matt Barnes interview wearing nothing but a towel before conducting his own interview wearing a fake mustache. On road trips, players will go out to dinners and movies as a group and tweet pictures of each other sleeping with the hashtag, "Gotem!"
It's a good time to be a Clipper, and the players are reveling in it.
There are no guarantees this ride will end with a championship, of course, but, for the first time in the team's history, that is a reasonable expectation and a genuine aim.
And that's the difference between the Clippers of 2012 and those of any other year in their history.
They are a team under pressure.
And they like it.