LOS ANGELES – Blake Griffin hasn’t been around the Los Angeles Clippers long enough to tell stories of how bad things once were for what was long one of the most maligned franchises in pro sports history.
He’s only heard about the team practicing and training at the Spectrum, a health club in the South Bay where players would lift weights alongside fans. He vaguely remembers that the Clippers were 19-63 before drafting him first overall in 2009. And he wasn’t aware that the Clippers only had two winning seasons since 1977 prior to last season.
Griffin doesn’t know how bad things really were but he certainly got a sense of it in his first two seasons on the team, before Chris Paul arrived last year. He heard the questions, he saw the turnout at games and, most of all, he saw the results. The Clippers were 61-103 in his first two seasons, the first of which he missed after suffering a stress fracture in his left knee.
“It used to be coming in to play the Clippers was the trip to Los Angeles when you could go out and enjoy yourself,” Griffin said. “Now, every game we have the bull's-eye on us and we want to put it right back on them. We realize we have a target on our backs, and we’ve said that from the very beginning of the season. We know teams are pretty hyped to play us, whether we go there on the road or they come in to play us.”
It took the Clippers some time to adjust to playing with that target. They lost at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Orleans Hornets early in the season and watched as both teams celebrated on their home floor as if they had just won the championship. Their 105-98 loss to New Orleans on Nov. 26, coming off a three-game road losing streak, was particularly hard to handle. The Hornets hit 15 3-pointers in the game and made sure the Clippers knew about it after each one went in.
When Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro heard that his players were upset with how the Hornets celebrated their win, he said: “If we played a lot better than we did, they wouldn’t be celebrating. Guys are going to celebrate. It’s a big win to beat us. So, take that as a compliment, but there’s also responsibility that goes with that. If you don’t want guys celebrating, then go do your job and we’ll do the celebrating.”
Since then, the Clippers have done their job and have done all the celebrating. They have won a franchise-record 13 straight games since Nov. 26, the longest winning streak in the NBA this season, and have beaten their opponents during the streak by an average margin of 15.6 points per game.
After the loss to New Orleans, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler talked to the team about their new roles as the hunted. Every team that played the Clippers was looking to score a surprise knockout. It was up to the Clippers to throw the first punch and continue peppering their opponent with punches until the fight was over.
"We're fortunate enough to be in a situation where when we go into a game every night it's not necessarily about the other team," Paul said. "It's about what we do. I've been on teams where you go into a game thinking you have to play almost a perfect game to beat a certain team. Fortunately, we have a pretty good team."
If this season is going to be as special as the Clippers think it can be, they can no longer afford to lose home games to the likes of Cleveland and New Orleans or go on four-game losing streaks.
“It was funny. My rookie year when we would play teams and we didn’t have a great record, it was more lighthearted,” Griffin said. “The coaching staff would joke around with you. You could say something back to them that was a joke or joke with the other team. Now, everybody takes everything more personally because it is a big game. It’s a game that they want to win, and we want to win even more. Every game is more businesslike.”
Suns coach Alvin Gentry saw firsthand how bad the Clippers used to be. He was their head coach from 2000-03, going 89-133 before he was fired. Now as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, he has also seen firsthand in two losses this season how good the Clippers are.
“That is the best team we've played," Gentry told reporters Sunday after the Clippers beat the Suns 103-77. “They're deep. They've got all the ingredients to be a championship team. They've got a great leader in Chris Paul, a tremendous player in Blake Griffin, they're deep off the bench, they're very good defensively, they're very athletic. ... Don't know a weakness that they have, really.”
As good as the Clippers have been, Paul knows the streak has to come to an end sooner or later. The way they've played and the lessons they've learned during the streak, however, don't have to end.
“At some point, hopefully not, we’re probably going to lose,” Paul said. “We just got to keep this same even keel and keep the same intensity. Right now, we’re building an identity. We go into every game expecting to win. That’s one of the biggest things that’s changed around here.”