Questions remain about whether Clippers can beat elite teams

LOS ANGELES -- The offseasons of the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs began three weeks apart but with similar goals in mind.

After losing four straight games to the same team to finish their seasons, the Clippers and Spurs knew they needed to make major changes if they hoped to get to the NBA Finals.

While the Spurs focused almost solely on the defensive end, the Clippers focused on reshaping their roster around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They needed to get deeper, smarter and more able to bang against Memphis down low one series, and guard the perimeter against San Antonio the next.

Both plans appeared to be working heading into last week’s NBA All-Star break, with the Spurs and Clippers occupying two of the top three seeds in the West and two of the top four seeds in the NBA.

But as Spurs coach Gregg Popovoich said before the Clippers played his team Thursday night, “It doesn’t matter what the standings are. The standings are sort of fake during the year.”

After the Spurs’ 116-90 dismantling of the Clippers, maybe Los Angeles’ championship prosepcts aren’t entirely fake, but its authenticity has certainly come under heavy scrutiny.

Sure, the Clippers will win 50 games this season and win the Pacific Division, two significant firsts for a franchise that has never done either. They may even accomplish another first by advancing to the Western Conference finals if things fall right for them in the postseason. But the realistic chances of this team winning a title or even getting to the NBA Finals have taken a major blow over the past two weeks.

Not only did the Clippers lose by 26 points to the Spurs on Thursday, but two weeks ago they lost by 22 points to the Miami Heat. In both games they fell behind by at least 32 points in the second half and never led by more than three points in the first half. In fact, they never even led Thursday, as the Spurs took a 34-21 lead after the first quarter. The Clippers are also 0-2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder this season.

Considering the road to a championship will certainly run through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami this season, the Clippers must find a way to get over that hump if they hope for a better ending to their season than another second-round exit.

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is no stranger to the way Popovich coaches despite looking lost at times trying to game plan against him. He played under Popovich in San Antonio and often picks his mind in the offseason.

There is a big difference, however, in being the teacher and the up-and-coming pupil. Del Negro has a vision for what he wants the Clippers to be, but Popovoich didn’t wait more than a few minutes after being eliminated by Oklahoma City before he began working on the Spurs’ game plan this season.

“We knew we were a middle of the road defensive team as (last season) was progressing,” Popovich said. “We knew that wasn’t going to be good enough. I was actually surprised that we got to the conference finals with a mediocre defense, to be honest with you, but the truth came out when the fourth quarters came against (Oklahoma City) and we couldn’t make stops.

“We went to work the day after that. We started to write down what we needed to emphasize the following training camp, and we did that in training camp to let our guys know. We showed them the film again. We made them watch the Game 5 loss at home to see that we needed to improve in three or four different areas, and we’re going to focus on this and if we can do this we’ll be back in the ballgame. If we don’t, you might as well start planning your summers. They took to it. They faced the problem and we’re a much better team defensively, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

It has so far taken them to the top of the NBA standings, as they currently have the best record in the league. It’s a spot the Clippers claimed at the midway point of the season before injuries and road trips knocked them down, but the question now is can the Clippers get back and compete with the likes of the Heat and the Spurs?

“Well, we split with the Heat, 1-1, and we’re 2-1 against the Spurs,” Paul said. “I don’t pay too much attention to right now. We’re still getting back. This isn’t the time when it matters.”

Del Negro also thinks the Clippers will be better equipped to face the Spurs this season if they played them in the postseason after revamping their roster and adding seven new players that weren’t on the team last season.

“We’ve been together since Day 1,” Del Negro said. “Last year was a lockout season. Chris and Blake weren’t nearly 100 percent and they battled through it, but I think our team is better. I think we’re deeper, I think we’re more experienced and we have a better basketball IQ overall. Last year I didn’t think we did a very good job from a physical series in Memphis to more of an experienced, open spacing type of game against San Antonio. I think we’re built better to handle that adjustment, and that was one of the reasons we built the team the way we did. Hopefully that will be an advantage for us if by chance we face San Antonio.”

On paper and in theory it sounds good, but until the Clippers can show it on the court and in the playoffs it will continue to be a major question mark hovering over this team.

“We haven’t done it yet so we have to go do it,” Del Negro said. “We have to do a much better job.”