CLIPPERS EMBARK ON KEY ROAD TRIP
PLAYA VISTA – It’s only half as long as their marathon road trip in February, but in many ways the Clippers’ four-game excursion through the Southwest Division beginning Tuesday in Dallas could be as momentous as any other stretch this season.
It may also give an indication of where they sit in the Western Conference playoff race.
The Clippers (48-22) are sandwiched between the Denver Nuggets (49-22) and the Memphis Grizzlies (47-22) in fourth place in the West. There is simply no margin for error with the teams sharing 22 losses and still three weeks remaining before the playoffs tipoff.
“Everyone is vying for position right now,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We’ve got four in five nights. There are no easy games, but we’re trying to play as well as possible and put ourselves in position to win as many as we can, if not all of them. And that’s how we look at it. It’s up to us to come up with good energy at the start of a long road trip and battle through things and just stay together.”
They open the trip in Dallas Tuesday, where the Mavericks have won eight of their last 13 at American Airlines Center. A night later, Chris Paul will play for the second time in his career as a visitor to New Orleans. Following a day off, they head back to Texas for a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, who own the West’s best record, and then close it out Saturday in Houston.
While February’s Grammy road trip lasted 15 days and included seven of eight stops along the Eastern seaboard, this one crams four games into a truncated five nights.
“It’s a big trip for us, starting off in Dallas,” Paul said. “Four games in five nights is tough. I actually looked at it. It’s funny because all of the games are against the Southwest Division. That’s the division that I played in for seven years. It’s tough. I used to tell people all the time it’s the toughest division in sports.”
It’s made tougher with the Grizzlies and Nuggets within such proximity of the Clippers in the standings. L.A. has won 13 of its last 18 games. Their 13-5 record matches the Spurs and Thunder for the fourth best record in the NBA over that span. However, despite their success, the Clippers have actually lost ground, sliding from third to fourth as Denver piled up 15 consecutive victories heading into Monday.
“For me, I’m always just paying attention to how we’re playing,” Chris Paul said. “You can’t worry about what other teams are doing. All you can do is concentrate on what your team is doing. I was in the West in ’07-08 when Houston won 22 games in a row and they only moved up like a spot. And that’s how it is in the Western Conference, it’s just like that. That’s the regular season for you, but all this means nothing once you get to the playoffs.”
Del Negro said, “It comes down to winning basketball games right now. If we win we move up and everyone knows what’s at stake.”
Effectively, the Clippers could wind up with the No. 3 seed without receiving help from either Memphis or Denver. With a Pacific Division championship likely imminent, they would hold the first tiebreaker over the Grizzlies and Nuggets, regardless of the head-to-head matchup. They also have one game remaining against the Grizzlies, meaning they could extend their lead to a full game over Memphis with a victory there in April.
Despite two consecutive losses away from Staples Center, the Clippers fly to the Lone Star State with a renewed confidence. They won in convincing fashion on Mar. 20 versus the 76ers, 101-72, and led by a sublime fourth quarter from Paul, defeated a playoff-bound Nets team, 101-95.
“You want to build momentum going into the home stretch,” said Caron Butler, who has 13 or more points in four of the last five games. “Having a quality win like the last one that we had that was a good ball club and a good win. We executed our offense and our defense to a ‘T’ down the stretch aside from a couple possessions. We want to continue to keep that momentum going and do well on this road trip.”
Both Paul and Butler were asked after practice Monday how many victories on the trip would be considered acceptable.
“We want to win all of them,” Butler said. “But it’s one game at a time. Every game poses different threats and different challenges.”
What about going 3-1 or 2-2?
“If somebody says that then they’re trippin’ because I feel like every trip we go on we should go 4-0,” Paul said. “It all starts in Dallas.”
And five days after that, the Clippers’ position in the West might begin to take shape.