LOS ANGELES – Caron Butler remembers when he was on the other side of the equation.
He remembers being on teams that were basically out of playoff contention almost as soon as the season began. They weren’t going to win many games but the recipe for the games they actually did win was quite simple.
The first 12 minutes of the game would let them know if they were actually going to play a full 48 minutes or simply go through the motions for the last 36 minutes.
“I played in Washington on some good teams and then I played there when it was chaos,” Butler said. “We just tried to make it to the ballgame and get through it. In the beginning of a game if teams gave us life we fed off that momentum.”
This season, the Los Angeles Clippers have continually given lesser teams life in the first quarter and have not only found themselves in close games late but on the losing end at times. It’s an odd trend for a team that has racked up wins over the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center but have also lost games to the New Orleans Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers in the same building.
“You have to tip your hat off to the Hornets and the other teams we feel we had an opportunity to beat but they’re not just going to give it to us,” Butler said. “We’re a big game. We’ve done some great things early this season and guys are really looking forward to Los Angeles and playing against us.”
Despite their big wins early in the season, Wednesday’s 101-95 win over Minnesota was the Clippers’ first win over a below .500 team and even that was a struggle as the Clippers were trailing late in the fourth quarter. As much as the Clippers have talked about approaching games against lesser teams with the same intensity as they do playoff contenders, it’s apparent in the first quarter that it’s easier said than done for this team. Against Golden State, Cleveland, New Orleans and even against Minnesota, the Clippers were trailing after the first quarter and ended up being in closer games than they anticipated; losing each time except for Wednesday.
On Saturday night, the Clippers will once again be tested when they face the 4-10 Sacramento Kings. Sacramento's a team that should be easy to defeat on paper but is exactly the kind of team that has proven to be the Clippers’ toughest opponent this season.
“It’s about consistency,” Butler said. “You have to approach every game the same. It’s hard to do that but it’s a mindset. Your disposition has to be the same, night in and night out. I learned that from Pat Riley a long time ago. Teach good habits and hopefully it will trickle down to the younger guys. They’re getting it. They understand that we have a big bull’s eye on our back . . . We have a lot of televised games. We have to be ready for that opportunity.”
It’s a new situation for many of the younger players on the Clippers this season. Players like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe have never been in this position before. The Clippers might not have done anything yet on the court to deserve this target, but their reputation has made them one of the bigger names on the schedule for opposing teams, especially lesser squads looking to make a splash by beating the Clippers.
“Last year we were just trying to go and make a statement and let everybody know that we’re for real,” Butler said. “This year, with so many new additions and the way we started out with so many televised games and being a team that was praised early we are a team with a huge bull’s eye on our back now. We have to prepare night in and night out and understand that and I think going through adversity will help us out a lot.”
When a reporter half-jokingly asked Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro recently if his team was afraid of getting good by playing down to their opposition at times, he smiled and half-jokingly agreed.
“Afraid of getting good . . . I like that,” Del Negro said. “A lot of guys haven’t had a bull’s eye on their chest and there’s a responsibility that goes with that.”
It’s a responsibility the Clippers are still learning to handle as they adjust to their new role as targets this season.