CLIPPERS MAY BE PEAKING AT PERFECT TIME
The final two games of the regular season, against two lottery-bound opponents, will continue what has been a near two-week playoff tune-up for the Clippers.
They have won five in a row, including a gritty 91-87 victory in Memphis Saturday, and have seemingly righted their course at precisely the right time. Two weeks ago, they were in the midst of a three-game losing streak, including falling behind by more than 20 points against the Rockets and Pacers in successive games. Now, they are back among the short list of contenders.
“We just want to keep playing well, finding ways to win basketball games,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “The energy and intensity level the last handful of games has picked up. We’re just playing a little bit harder, getting a little bit more contributions from guys, playing a little bit sharper defensively and sometimes that’s what it takes.”
Despite a swoon through stretches of February and March, the Clippers (54-26) still have compiled 19 wins in 28 games since Feb. 10. That’s good for fifth in the NBA and 2.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the second best overall record in that span. During their five-game winning streak, they own the best point differential in the league at +12.4 and have a net efficiency rating of +17.1, scoring 117.8 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 100.7.
After Monday’s practice, which is the team’s last of the regular season, Blake Griffin credited an uptick intensity as to why they have ramped up their play of late.
“Our intensity, I think, has been much better,” Griffin said. “That carries over into the pace of our offense and the way we play defense. Like I’ve said all year, we make mistakes but we make up for that by either pushing it right back them or learning from it and kind of brining that intensity the next time. That’s carried on from game-to-game-to-game.”
It has also helped that the team has gained relative health over the last few weeks. Griffin, who was bothered by a painful calf injury for eight games, said he “turned the corner” last week and has looked more like himself during the streak, averaging 16.8 points and 5.2 assists since Apr. 3 and scoring 19 or more points three times.
Chris Paul, who put together four consecutive double-doubles before the Memphis game, said he and Griffin have taken it upon themselves to help the team avoid slow starts. “Our energy to start games [has been better],” Paul said. “You know, we haven’t been getting out in those 6-0 slumps or anything like that and it starts every night with me and Blake.”
Perhaps, the impetuous for that line of thinking came following their Apr. 1 loss to Indiana, in which the starters allowed the Pacers to jump out to a 10-0 lead at Staples Center. It hasn’t happened since and from Griffin’s perspective that started in practice.
“I think when we have good practices and we’re intense and we’re locked in, it carries over into games,” the three-time All-Star said. “And that’s big. We can’t come out and waste a day of practice because we don’t get that many practice days down the stretch here.”
Monday’s practice was comparable to what Griffin was talking about. The team worked out for a little more than an hour, including running a 5-on-5 scrimmage.
“The intensity level was definitely sort of a playoff practice,” Grant Hill said. “The intensity that you want.”
Among those on the court was Chauncey Billups, who has missed the past eight games with a strained right groin. Billups said he’s optimistic he can play Tuesday against Portland, the first game of a home-road back-to-back to close out the regular season.
“I feel good,” Billups said. “I’ve been, for the last three days, just kind of doing everything that the team is doing, practicing, working out. So, I feel good. Barring anything crazy, I expect to be out there.”
Getting Billups a chance to re-assimilate himself to the starting lineup after missing 60 of the team’s 80 games this year is one reason the final two regular season games feel more important than might normally. Of course, playoff positioning is as well.
“We’re still positioning ourselves and nothing’s guaranteed at this point,” Hill said. “We’ll have time to really lock in and focus on the matchups.”
“One of the things that was on the board in there this morning was: ‘Don’t really on others to control your own destiny. You have the ability and the power to do it yourselves.’”
It seems like the Clippers have been in that mode for two weeks already.