Time is now for a Clippers playoff push

LOS ANGELES – Caron Butler doesn’t want to look at the Western Conference standings. Not yet, anyway, but he can’t escape it as he walks around the Clippers’ locker room.

Next to the large flat screen TV in the middle of the room, the Clippers have a white board with the NBA standings on the left. It’s almost impossible not to sneak a peek at it even if you wanted to avoid it.

“I was actually on my way to the restroom and I looked at the won-loss column and it’s scary,” Butler said. “You don’t even want to look at it right now. If you lose a game you drop to eighth, ninth or even tenth. If you win a game you might shoot up to third. I don’t want to look at that. I just want to win games and look at it at the end of April.”

If Butler looks at the standings today after the Clippers’ 97-85 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Monday night he would see the Clippers at 28-21 are just two games behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division and in sole possession of fourth place in the West, which would give them home court advantage in the first round.

Yes, after three straight losses last week left Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro on the hot seat and the Clippers’ playoff hopes on life support, they are right back in the thick of things following two straight wins. Such is life in the NBA during this lockout shortened season.

“Every day things change,” Del Negro said. “We can’t worry about what anyone else is doing ... The standings are so tight, a poor performance here or there can add up pretty quick.”

The games are actually adding up at a historic pace for the Clippers this month where they are in the midst of playing 20 games in a 31-day span; the most games ever played by an NBA team in a month in 45 years. The Clippers knew this month would make or break their season and it was on the verge of breaking last week before the Clippers returned home for a five-game home stand that might find them back atop the Pacific Division this week if things break their way.

“It will come down to us getting out and playing as a team and not being so worried about touches and lobs and everything but just being sound in our fundamentals,” Del Negro said. “We need to build or confidence and swagger back.”

It seems the Clippers’ confidence and swagger is slowly beginning to come back at home, where they have won four straight for the first time since January, and have won back-to-back games by an average margin of 14 points for the first time this season. They are far from as efficient and exciting as they were during the glory days of “Lob City” in January but the Clippers are so far taking advantage of their current five-game homestand after going just 3-3 during their last homestand.

“We’re not good enough to go into games and think teams are just going to lie down,” Chris Paul said. “They see Blake [Griffin] on Top Ten every night and stuff like that so the dunks are not going to come easy anymore ... We’ve grown and it’s going to be interesting to see how we react in these last 17 games.”

There are many reasons why the Clippers have struggled after starting the season 19-9. They lost Chauncey Billups for the season last month, have seemingly had to incorporate a new player into the lineup every other week and have played a grueling road schedule after only leaving Los Angeles only three times in January. One that Del Negro did not anticipate was having opponents play the Clippers with the same intensity on a nightly basis that they normally would against the Lakers, Heat and Celtics. It makes sense considering the Clippers are ranked ahead of the Celtics and just behind the Heat and Lakers in road attendance this season.

“They’re in a situation they’ve never been in before where they’re relevant and where you have to play at a higher level,” Del Negro said. “Teams are coming at us a little bit because of our record and some of things we’ve done this year. It’s unfamiliar ground for this organization and for these players.”

The unfamiliarity of it is beginning to wear off as the Clippers try to avoid the familiarity of a Clippers team sputtering down the stretch and make one last push in the standings without, of course, looking at the standings.

“The time is now,” Del Negro said. “The guys have to make a move now and they know that.”