Clippers looking healthy and hard to beat

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has a list of phrases he likes to utter before and after games.

He'll say "it's a process" when asked about the progress his team has made. He'll say "I'm Italian" when asked about his temper or adverse reaction to a play. And he'll usually say "he's a pro" when talking about one of his veterans.

The two phrases Del Negro has had to utter more than he'd like this season, however, are "game-time decision" and "day-to-day." Seemingly not a game or practice goes by where Del Negro hasn't said that a player is a "game-time decision" or that he is "day-to-day" moving forward.

Del Negro began Wednesday night by calling Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler game-time decisions after both players missed Monday night's game in Philadelphia because of sore lower backs. By the end of the night, Del Negro was talking about the difference both players can make when they are healthy.

Butler and Billups both scored 19 points and were deadly from beyond the arc, with Butler hitting 3-of-8 3-pointers and Billups connecting on 4-of-7 in what was eventually a 106-96 victory over the Houston Rockets at Staples Center.

"Chauncey hit some great shots. He was hot early on," Del Negro said. "Caron really got us off to a good start and did a good job defensively, which was good to see."

It's easy to forget the impact players like Billups and Butler can have on a team with championship aspirations. Billups has played just six games over the past year and Butler is almost always mentioned in trade talks in which the Clippers are involved.

The feeling is the Clippers would be just fine without Billups. After all, they started the season 32-9 without him, and could make do with Matt Barnes as the starting small forward if Butler were traded. Those in that camp just need to point to the Clippers' 107-90 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday without Billups and Butler to prove their point.

But the fact remains, for a team with championship aspirations, having a completely healthy roster with Butler and Billups in the lineup is vital.

"When Chauncey, Caron and Grant [Hill] are healthy, those guys take us over the top," Jamal Crawford said. "They just know how the play. They're high-IQ guys and it's a seamless transition when they come back."

No one is a bigger fan of both players than Chris Paul, who has often called Billups his big brother and the best backcourt teammate he has ever had.

"Chauncey gives me the opportunity to get off the ball," Paul said. "I can go to the elbow and iso and let him come off the ball screen. He's an orchestrator every now and then in order to get the ball back to me, instead of me orchestrating to get it back to me. It's pretty nice to have him out there."

The biggest change for the Clippers over the past three games with their roster at full strength is the way they have started games. They've been up by double-digits in the first half of their last three games and up by 20 early in the last two games.

"I think the biggest thing is that we were letting our defense create our offense," Paul said. "We're just as tough in transition. We were getting stops and we were scoring and making shots. Chauncey got it going early for us making shots, and we were getting stops."

Billups and Butler play a big role in that process for the Clippers and were instrumental in the Clippers taking a 23-point lead against Houston and pulling away early.

"I think everything for us is going to start on the defensive end," Billups said. "We got great offensive players and guys that can make plays but whether we win or lose is going to be dictated by our defense. Our thermometer is going to be our defense."

While Billups and Butler admit they are not quite 100 percent and might not be this season, they realize the success of this team doesn't ultimately hinge on them carrying the team on their back. They may have been in that position earlier in their careers, but they know that on a team this deep, if they can just contribute 20-30 minutes per night and put the bench in a position to put games away late, the Clippers will be in position to make a deep run in the playoffs.

"Everybody knows we have a dangerous team and a very deep team," Billups said. "I just feel like if our starters can get us off to a good first quarter, I think our bench will be able to outlast pretty much every bench in the league. So the pressure is on us as starters to not put our bench in a position when they have to come back from 10 or 12 points, they can just play with a six- to eight-point lead and kind of grind teams down. If we can get to a point where we're playing like that a lot, we're going to reach our potential."