Eight previous seasons in the Atlantic Division as the Buffalo Braves and another 34 in the Pacific Division after moving West, the Clippers franchise had never won a division championship.
With their 109-95 win over the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday afternoon, the Clippers clinched their first-ever Pacific Division crown.
A large message flashed on the video board at Staples Center long after the teams exited the floor reading: “Pacific Division Champions.” It was a moment of triumph for Clippers fans as they unleashed one of their most passionate ovations of the season as Caron Butler pulled down the final rebound and the Clippers dribbled out the clock.
The Charlotte Bobcats and Memphis Grizzlies are the only franchises in the 30-team NBA who have yet to win a division title.
“It’s a testament to the team and to the players staying focused on the season,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We had certain goals coming into the year. Our aspirations are bigger than that, but you have to get these things done. And whenever you’re trying to do something for the first time, obviously, there’s some added incentive there or pressure or whatever you want to put on it.
“We look forward to that pressure. We look forward to the challenge. I expect a lot from the team and they expect a lot from themselves which is more important.”
The expectations began with the construction of the current roster over a five-year process. They selected center DeAndre Jordan in the 2008 draft and superstar Blake Griffin the following year. The team’s December 2011 acquisition of Chris Paul immediately pushed the group into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but despite a franchise-record winning percentage (.607) in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season the Clippers finished a game behind the Lakers in the Pacific.
After an offseason that added seven new faces to the roster, including key reserves Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, the Clippers got off to a somewhat disappointing 8-6 start. Through the first month they spent a total of 15 days behind the Warriors in second place. But their franchise-record 17-game winning streak from Nov. 28 to Dec. 30 gave the Clippers a four-game cushion in the standings by New Year’s Day. They would never relinquish the lead.
“It means a lot,” Paul said Sunday. “It means that we’re headed in the right direction. There was no cake, no champagne popping or nothing like that in the locker room. I think that says even more about our team and that we aren’t satisfied. We understand that this is something small compared to the big picture.”
The winning streak was one of several historical marks this season. Paul tallied his 10,000th point and 5,000th assist and won All-Star MVP, Griffin and Paul were elected All-Star starters for the second consecutive year, Grant Hill played in his 1,000th game, the team set the franchise high for road victories (21 and counting) and won 50 games for the first time ever. Now, with the Pacific Division wrapped up, the Clippers’ sights are set on capping their unprecedented regular-season success with a deep postseason run.
“In order to get where we want to get to those things have to be accomplished,” Del Negro said.
It was clear afterwards that the division title was more of checkmark than a celebration. When the team arrived in the locker room after the game, they acknowledged the accomplishment, but did not take it any further. There were red commemorative t-shirts on each player’s chair, no one put them on.
“We’ve kind of had the mindset that this is what we were supposed to do,” Griffin said. “We want something a little bit more than that.”