Clippers look to keep streak alive

Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro knows at some point the Clippers’ 17-game winning streak will come to an end. As well as the Clippers have been playing in completing just the third ever 16-0 month in NBA history, he knows his team won’t finish the season 76-6.

Whenever that day comes, Del Negro isn’t worried about how his team will react to their first loss since November. He believes the way the Clippers started the season -- going 8-6 while beating teams like the Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs (twice), Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls (twice) -- was actually more impressive than the Clippers’ current streak, which has largely come against lesser competition.

“Everyone talks about the streak that we’re on but I thought the way we handled the early part of the season with our schedule was big,” Del Negro said. “We had one of the hardest schedules in the league and we were beating teams then with a group that wasn’t complete in terms of [not having] Chauncey [Billups], Grant [Hill] and Lamar [Odom]. We were still finding ways to win early on. I thought that was a bigger key, to be honest with you, than the last month or so.”

Del Negro actually points to two home losses the Clippers had early in the season as a potential turning point in their season. While the Clippers were beating the best teams in the NBA, they were also defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Hornets at home and gave up over 100 points to each team, something they’ve only done seven times all season.

“Maybe the two losses early in the season against teams we could have beat at home and we didn’t handle the right way, we learned something from that,” Del Negro said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen again. Hopefully it doesn’t. But I think this group is figuring out a way we need to play to give ourselves the best result and the most consistency.”

Players discussed the streak amongst themselves as they neared breaking the franchise record of 12, but the streak hasn’t been talked about much since they surpassed that mark last month. It’s not that they don’t care about the streak, but they understand it will end sooner or later, and how they respond to that first loss in over a month is just as important as how they played during the streak.

“We’re honestly just trying to get better,” Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. “At some point, we know we’re not going to win the next 50 games. At some point, we’re going to lose and we understand that. We just want to get better each game . . . The early struggles we had give us something to draw from. How we bounced back after losing four in a row was big. If that hadn’t happened there might be a curiosity of how we would have responded but I think we’re in good shape, having gone through what we went through.”

The significance of the streak, however, isn’t lost on anyone on the Clippers. If they can defeat the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday for their 18th straight win, they will join the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, 1981-82 Boston Celtics and 1969-70 New York Knicks, teams that also won 18 straight before losing. The Clippers currently have the ninth-longest streak in NBA history. And of the eight teams ahead of the Clippers, five of them went on to win the NBA title and two others advanced to the conference finals.

Clippers players will often peek at the NBA standings, which are posted in their locker room at Staples Center. The one thing players have often pointed out during the streak is as well as they’re playing, the rest of the West is playing just as well. Despite winning 17 straight games, the Clippers are just a half game ahead of Oklahoma City and one game in front of San Antonio. The Clippers aren’t just trying to keep the streak alive; they’re trying to stay ahead of the Thunder and Spurs. Both teams could easily move ahead of the Clippers in a matter of hours if the Clippers slip up.

“It’s not something where we say, ‘We got to keep the streak going,’” Del Negro said. “We got to keep the streak going because we want to win the basketball game . . . Obviously the streak is great, don’t get me wrong, but we’re thinking bigger than the streak.”