LOS ANGELES -- There have been a number of measuring sticks and barometer games for the Los Angeles Clippers this season to see if they are truly a championship team.
They have passed nearly every test so far in defeating the Memphis Grizzlies twice, San Antonio Spurs twice, Los Angeles Lakers twice, Chicago Bulls twice, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and, well, you get the point.
There is, however, one team the Clippers had in mind when they were putting together their roster in the offseason, and it still remains the one team they have yet to defeat this season. After losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder, 109-97, Tuesday night, the Clippers are now 0-2 this season against the one team they are measuring themselves against, and the one team they think (or at least hope) they will see in the Western Conference finals.
Both teams were tied for the best record (32-9) in the NBA at the midway point of the season, but after back-to-back losses, the Clippers now sit one and half games behind Oklahoma City.
The Clippers knew they were going to be fighting an uphill battle to beat Oklahoma City after shootaround Tuesday morning when Chris Paul, who is battling a bruised right kneecap, was ruled out. After the Clippers went 3-0 on the road last week without Paul, winning games by an average margin of 14.6 points, they didn't want to use injuries as an excuse after Tuesday's game.
"We know how much Chris makes a difference, but I'm not going to use that as an excuse at all," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "I have a lot of confidence in the guys that played tonight. We just didn't play as well as we needed to."
This isn't the first time the Clippers have suffered a disappointing loss at home, but it is the first time they've lost a game at Staples Center in which they didn't overlook their opponent. Losses to the likes of Cleveland, New Orleans and Orlando were chalked up as aberrations and wake-up calls. Tuesday's loss to Oklahoma City may be a wake-up call of another kind.
Sure, the Clippers were playing without Paul, but after losing twice to the Thunder so far this season, it might not be a stretch to wonder if the Clippers are simply playing for second place in the West. Of course, no one on the Clippers would ever admit that. They'll point to the fact that they beat the Thunder three of four times last season, won four straight against Oklahoma City at home before Tuesday and will be looking to win the final meeting this season.
Still, it has to be a thought creeping into the minds of some as they watch the Thunder play with the purpose of a team looking for redemption this season after falling short in the NBA Finals in June.
Oklahoma City is in the final stage of a "process" that Del Negro often talks about with his team. This is the fifth year of a process in Oklahoma City that has seen the Thunder go from 23-59 and out of the playoffs with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to 50-32 and a playoff berth to 55-27 and a Western Conference finals berth to 47-19 and an NBA Finals berth last season. They're obviously hoping the end of that process will come in June when they finally win the NBA title.
"We talk about process all the time," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We're committed to that process and working every day and figuring out ways to get better. You don't just go to bed one night and pray to be a good team the next morning. You have to work at it every day and it takes time. You better have good players because you can't go through a process and have a bunch of bums on your team. You have to have good players who are committed to each other and the process, and we do and I'm sure the Clippers do too."
The Clippers are still very much in the infancy of their "process." They just celebrated their one-year anniversary as "Lob City" last month and have yet to have their entire roster healthy this season. As soon as Grant Hill returned to the team last week, Paul was injured and Chauncey Billups has still played only three games this season. While the Clippers didn't want to use injuries as an excuse, they couldn't help themselves as they talked about their place in the conference after losing to Oklahoma City for the second time this season.
"I think we're the elite of the conference as well," Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. "They got us tonight, but we weren't fully healthy, no excuses. They played a good game, but when we see them down the line we'll be ready."
And as much as Crawford and the Clippers would like to get Oklahoma City down the line this season, their goal this offseason was to get them down the line in the postseason and fast forward their "process" of competing for and ultimately winning a championship.