- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Chauncey Billups sat in front of his locker, fidgeting with his cell phone and talking about a good Italian restaurant in Hollywood he had discovered the night before.
While the young players around the 15-year veteran were being asked about how quickly it would take the Los Angeles Clippers to fully gel and play like the fun-lobbing team everyone expects them to already be, Billups simply smiled and shook his head.
"It takes time," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight."
Billups, who has played on seven teams in his career, knows that more than most. As much as players and fans alike want the Clippers to live up to all the hype they've received to start the season, Billups is more realistic about what kind of team they will be early-on, especially as he recovers from a strained right grown.
For the second straight game, Billups sat out with the nagging injury as the Clippers beat the Portland Trailblazers 93-88 on Sunday night. Despite the win, the Clippers were forced to play another game and go another day without Billups, who said he will attempt to return for Wednesday's game against the Houston Rockets at the Staples Center.
"It's a huge negative," Billups said about being unable to play. "The more opportunities we have on the court to know one another, the better we're going to be. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can play more cohesively; when you're missing some pieces that slows it down."
In blowout losses to the San Antonio Spurs and the Chicago Bulls in their last two games, the Clippers stunted progress and hesitation showed the gap that still remains between the revamped Clippers and the teams that finished with the top two records in the NBA last season.
"The process is still the process and you can't cheat it," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "No matter how much talent you have on paper, you still have to get guys comfortable with your terminology. And basketball is a game of instinct. And when you're out there thinking a lot instead of reacting, you're a step slow ... and against teams like San Antonio and Chicago, they're going to make you pay for it."
Against Portland, however, a team that came into the game 3-0 and in the top three in the league in points, rebounds and assists per game, the Clippers showed why they are more than just "Lob City."
For three quarters they shored up a defense that was torn apart by Chicago and San Antonio, holding Portland to 52 points and taking a 17-point lead before having to rely on the heroics of Chris Paul when the Blazers cut the Clippers' lead to 93-88.
Paul split Raymond Felton and LaMarcus Aldridge and banked in a rainbow over the outstretched arm of Aldridge in the key with 9.3 seconds left to give the Clippers a 92-88 lead. He then beat Jamal Crawford on a jump ball to seal the win as the sold out crowd at Staples Center chanted, "C-P-3."
Although Paul admitted the Clippers can't give up 36 points in the fourth quarter and expect to win on most nights, he smiled when he pointed to the final score on the stat sheet.
"It's exciting. It's part of the journey," Paul said. "There's a process. You have to learn everybody and get to know their families and get to know their kids. It's part of the journey. There's going to be ups and downs on this thing, but it all makes it all sweeter in the end."
Billups has tried to put the long and unpredictable journey of the NBA season into perspective for his young teammates, pointing out that the greatest season of his NBA career, which ended with an NBA title and a Finals MVP, seemed far from a reality 30 games into the season.
"When I went to Detroit, it took a while," Billups said. "The year we won it all, we were 17-13 after our first 30 games and then we started to build and build and build. We had a new coach and we made the trade for [Rasheed Wallace]."
"We still didn't finish with the best record in the league," he said. "We finished with the sixth best record. That's a big deal, but is that everything? No. It's about how you're playing when the playoffs hit and if everyone's playing together on the court. If you're a good team, you can win anywhere."
The Clippers are 2-2 after the first four games of the season. It's far from the best record in the league. And the non-stop lobs that were expected from Paul to his high-flying teammates have been few and far between. But that's simply part of a six-month journey the Clippers are less than three weeks into.
"There's no crystal ball to it," Del Negro said. "There's no perfect scenario other than grinding it out every day and working through your mistakes and getting everybody on the same page and becoming a team."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLA.com.
The Clippers are starting to realize that becoming a team is a journey.