LOS ANGELES – There were no hour-long meetings this time. No overly dramatic messages from the veterans in the locker room. And perhaps most importantly for the Clippers, there was no let down.
Two weeks ago the Clippers gathered in their locker room at Staples Center and closed the door for an hour. They had just lost to a Phoenix Suns team playing without Steve Nash and Grant Hill, 91-87. The Clippers led by as many as 17 points in the game and 12 in the final period. They faded late as they had done time and time again and something needed to be said. Actually, a lot of things needed to be said.
The Clippers responded after the meeting with two lackluster wins at home and followed that up with three losses in three days on the road. It’s hard to claim the meeting was some kind of seminal moment in the Clippers’ season considering their poor road trip but the Clippers haven’t lost at home since.
After beating the Suns 103-86 on Wednesday, the Clippers have now won five games in a row at home and have won three straight overall for the first time since January. Their three straight wins on their current five-game homestand have been by an average margin of 15 points, the team’s most dominant stretch this season.
It is a little early to say the Clippers have turned a corner this season. They are still very much a work in progress and look lost at times on the court. Players are still trying to find their way and establish their roles on the team with just 16 games left in the season. It’s not so much an indictment of Vinny Del Negro, who is no longer in jeopardy of losing his job this season, or the players, but more a byproduct of a completely new roster trying to play as one cohesive group despite changing every other week for the past four months.
“They’re a real talented team,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “Everyone wanted to see this thing come together right away and that doesn’t happen. It’s a process. I think they’re going to be really, really good. I don’t think there’s anybody raising their hands to play them in the playoffs. It takes a little bit of time for everything to come together and gel. They still need to figure out there roles. It’s not like they’ve been together. Caron [Butler] is new, Chris [Paul] is new, all these guys are now. They’re talented but I think everyone is jumping the gun with where they should be. I think they’re fine.”
Against the Suns, the Clippers were more than just fine, they looked like the contenders many pegged them for earlier in the season when they jumped out to a 19-9 record. Paul had 15 points and 15 assists, Blake Griffin finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds and Butler, the team’s X-factor, scored 14 points. Del Negro is also beginning to develop a more consistent rotation off the bench over the past three games, consisting of Nick Young, Kenyon Martin, Bobby Simmons and Eric Bledsoe with Mo Williams out for at least the next couple weeks with a toe injury.
“It’s that time of the year,” Del Negro said. “It’s time to win games. The race is so tight. You can play bad and win and you can play good and lose but you just have to find a way to win games. I’m proud of the guys, the way they’ve stuck together and battled this past week. That’s what it’s about. It’s about fighting together and handling the adversity that’s thrown at you and showing your character.”
Griffin had two big slam dunks during a 16-second stretch at the end of the game that not only put the game out of reach but reminded Clippers fans of how good this team was two months ago. It was perhaps the loudest Staples Center has been for a Clippers game since Griffin nearly blew up Twitter by dunking over Kendrick Perkins on January 30.
“Winning is the best medicine,” Griffin said. “We lost three games in a row and the world was about to fall apart for us ... Obviously you don’t want to lose three games in a row like that but the way we responded was good.”
It is probably no coincidence that the Clippers’ recent success has come with Chauncey Billups sitting on the bench. Billups was lost for the season last month with a torn left Achilles and the team went 9-11 without him. Since he has returned to sideline, the Clippers are 5-0 at home. Unfortunately for the Clippers, Billups is unable to travel with the team and they are 0-3 without him since his return.
“I told Chauncey he’s got to stop being selfish and come on the road with us too,” Paul said. “It’s no secret that we’re undefeated when he’s there. Me and Mo told him so his Achilles doesn’t swell up on the flight he needs to jump on a Greyhound bus a day before we play and get to where we’re going.”
Paul also knows if the Clippers want to get to where they want to go, they have to continue winning with less than three games separating them from the fourth seed to completely out of the playoffs.
“Right now we control our own destiny,” Paul said. “As long as we continue to win games, we don’t have to keep looking over our shoulder to see what other teams are doing. This home stretch is very important for us and we have to keep it going.”