CLIPPERS PREPARE FOR STRETCH RUN
PLAYA VISTA – The stretch run in the NBA officially begins Tuesday and for the Clippers it starts a string of games with Western Conference opponents that could go a long way in deciding postseason position two months from now.
The Clippers (37-18) play the San Antonio Spurs (38-15) Tuesday in their first of 27 games to close out the season. They follow that with a three-game road trip that includes stops in Memphis, Oklahoma City and New Orleans before returning home to play the Rockets, who sit in a virtual tie with the Clippers and Trail Blazers for third place in the West.
“We have a pretty good schedule coming up here,” said Blake Griffin fresh off of a 38-point performance in Sunday’s All-Star Game. “We play some good teams on the road and at home. Really, locking in and making sure we execute our game plan every game. You’re not always going to be great. You’re not always going to shoot great, but as long as we’re executing our game plan and doing the things that we need to do that will help.”
Griffin, who is averaging nearly 28 points per game in his last 30, was alluding to the body of schedule remaining for the Clippers, which includes 14 home games and 13 road games, almost all against teams in the West. Point guard Darren Collison said the coming stretch is arguably as important as any they have faced all season.
“I think this is the most important stretch,” Collison said. “Everyone always says you want to play your best basketball around this time. I think this second half of the season, if we get off to a good start, then it should carry us right into the Playoffs.
“I think getting to the Western Conference Finals, seedings may not really matter, but I think home court advantage will. I think if we can get at least a top four seed then we put ourselves in a good position.”
A season ago, the Clippers won their final seven games of the regular season and finished with a franchise-record 56 victories, but managed just the No. 4 seed by virtue of tiebreaker with the 56-win Grizzlies. The West could be similar in 2013-14. There are four teams between fifth and second that are separated by just three games in the loss column and another four teams at the bottom of the Playoff standings vying for three spots.
Because of how tight the race may be, the Clippers are forced to regain their focus after a four-day break. They returned to practice Monday afternoon.
“Right now we have to be locked in,” Collison said. “If want to get where we want to go, we have to take care of business no matter who we’re playing.”
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said there are plenty of areas that need to be tightened up in the stretch run, particularly the team’s defensive consistency. They have allowed at least 105 points in four of their last five games, including last week’s 122-117 victory over the Trail Blazers that led into All-Star Weekend.
“We haven’t been consistent enough defensively,” Rivers said. “You look at the Portland game the other night. We won in an offensive game because we got seven or eight straight stops at the end. And you look at that and think, ‘What were we waiting for?’ through that game. All of a sudden we started doing some things we should’ve been doing, so that’s my concern. We’ve become so good offensively I think at times that we think, ‘Well, we’ll outscore them.’ That does not work in the Playoffs.
“I think when you see the finish line it does help you focus a little more. We’re not where we want to be as far as if the Playoffs started today.”
Griffin and Chris Paul returned home from the All-Star Game in New Orleans immediately after the game. The Western Conference lost, 163-155, despite 38 points from Griffin, which was four short of matching the All-Star Game record, and a double-double from Paul.
Rivers joked that he was going to spend extra time in practice on defense after the Clippers’ superstars were a part of a team that allowed 163 points in 48 minutes.
“That was another level [of no defense],” Rivers said.
It was like there was not great ‘D’ and they were making shots, so it was one of those games. But Blake was great and Chris was great and that’s all I really cared about.”
Jamal Crawford said he watched the All-Star Game with friends and family at a Lucky Strike bowling alley in Seattle.
“[Griffin] was unbelievable,” Crawford said. “He was a joy to watch. I play with him every day but just watching him there’s a different appreciation for him.”