There are certain burdens that come with being a contender. A road win in a place like Washington and Charlotte becomes as insignificant as a gifted student earning an A in a crip course, and nearly every home loss serves as an indictment of title hopes. The Los Angeles Clippers now reside in this rarified world, a place where success is measured in May and ugly wins are examined for harbingers of future failure.
For the Clippers and their fans, adjustment to life on an upper floor can produce vertigo. The team has never had a leader like Chris Paul, a perfectionist who grumbled after the unsteady home victory over Memphis during which the Clippers let the Grizzlies back into a game that should've been a laugher. A 4-2 road trip back east would've been cause for euphoria in years past. This season, it's the Clippers merely shooting par. Two All-Star starters?! Tell it to someone who cares. More exciting and charismatic than the Lakers! There's no fabric in the rafters.
Paul intuitively knows all this. He appreciates the talent that surrounds him -- supernova Blake Griffin; professional yeomen like Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans; safety nets Mo Williams and Randy Foye; young'uns DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe. But Paul realizes the composition of the Clippers' roster only underscores a singular truth: None of it means bupkis if the Clippers don't conjure their finest basketball against the teams standing between his team's potential and its promise.
The Clippers have concluded their abbreviated schedule against the East's division leaders (finishing 2-1 vs. Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia). They've taken a tour through the West's congested scrum of challengers, encouraged by some crafty wins and dispirited by a few humbling losses. These regular-season matchups have been instructive, as Paul and Griffin continue to work on their choreography, while the defense -- which languished near the bottom of the ranking for much of the first two months of the season -- continues to gradually coalesce.
Speculation on whether the Clippers are contenders, pretenders, upstarts, curios, complete, incomplete, wild cards or just plain wild is purely an abstract exercise. The verdict on the Clippers will be rendered when the Clippers confront these opponents in seven-game series. How do they match up?
The Clippers' 112-100 win over the Thunder at Staples Center on Jan. 30 will be remembered more for flash than substance, as Griffin produced the NBA season's most terrifying dunk, but the Clippers' 12-0 run to close the first half might be the best reassurance that the Clips can play with anyone. After the game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks called the Clippers "the best team we've played all season."
Was the Clippers' blowout of Oklahoma City a telling sign or an aberration? Outside of Miami, the Thunder have the most lethal platoon of one-on-one offensive perimeter scorers in the league. At least on paper, this should pose enormous headaches for the Clippers, who lack for isolation defenders. It's no surprise, then, that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each topped 30 -- many of those buckets at the rim -- but the Clippers neutralized the rest of the roster.
Truth be told, the Clippers' defensive effort was adequate, but nothing more. The Thunder topped their average offensive output in defeat. The Clippers' real achievement came with the ball, as they demonstrated they could devise an offensive game plan and execute it. The game was a beautiful distillation of the Clippers' strengths. Paul and Griffin controlling the action and finding space in the middle of the floor. When open snipers presented even better opportunities off the pick-and-roll, expertly wrapped kickouts came from the interior. Sprinkle in a devastating combination of open 3s and acrobatics in the open court and the night was a nearly flawless display of firepower -- the best version of the Los Angeles Clippers.
It's difficult to image the teams replicating identical performances in a playoff series. Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City is an inhospitable road gym. The Thunder are a far better defensive outfit with Thabo Sefolosha and his absence could be seen in the Clippers' prolific work along the perimeter, where they scored at will. In the Clippers' favor, the Thunder don't have much of a post attack, allowing Griffin and Jordan to buzz around the half court, where their speed comes in handy. Then there's Paul, who has a gift at making all but the best defenses pay for late shot-clock errors and vacant space. The Thunder aren't yet an elite defensive unit, something Paul exposed that night.
Two of the Clippers' 10 losses have come against the Spurs, one a blowout four days into the season, the other a bizarre game the Clippers gave away. There's more to admire than to fear about San Antonio, but a seven-game series against San Antonio would be a rugged, mentally grueling test.
No other Western Conference team is more adept at making opponents pay for their mistakes -- and none is better at correcting its own. There's a strong case to be made that the Clippers outplayed the Spurs in the recent loss, but the Spurs still demonstrated their tactical superiority.
Did you see how they exploited every mismatch created out of a Clippers' defensive switch? How the Spurs consistently punished DeAndre Jordan's help decisions by ducking in on the weak side? How they patiently waited out Randy Foye's uncharacteristic and unsustainable outburst in the third quarter, never compromising their defensive strategy?
Even with all their competence, the Spurs win that game only because of a fluky error, literally, landed in Gary Neal. There are good arguments for why San Antonio would prevail over the Clippers, but the Clippers would carry their own advantages into a long series. The Clippers are more athletic and more capable of finding what they want in the half court even against a strong defense. Spurs-Clippers would be a fascinating series, a classic battle between studied experience in a proven system and an visceral display of individual talent.
The reigning champions nipped the Clippers in Dallas on Feb. 13 in an unsightly game during which neither team played their best ball, came down to the final possession.
Looking purely at the fundamentals, Dallas better executed its game plan and, in some sense, provided the defensive template for containing the Clippers' attack. The Mavericks walled off the lane, confining Paul to the perimeter and giving Griffin few opportunities to wreak havoc at the rim. The Clippers had to rely on their perimeter jumpers and outperformed in that respect. Seven-game series have a funny way of creating a regression to the mean, and it's unlikely the Clippers could move past the Mavericks playing an outside game.
Systems matter, and the Mavericks under coach Rick Carlisle have developed and refined theirs on both ends. Long playoff runs will do that, and the preparation with which the Mavericks would enter two weeks of trench warfare would challenge the Clippers' less orthodox methods.
How does 200 minutes of Shawn Marion hounding Chris Paul sound? Or Blake Griffin fighting through pin-down after pin-down to slow Dirk Nowitzki? Just as Paul rarely lets plays die on the offensive end, the Mavericks virtually never give away defensive possessions. Shots must be earned against Dallas. The Clippers have been efficient offensively, but they'd have to find craftier ways to score to beat Dallas four times in the spring.
The Lakers are enduring their usual midseason turmoil, but winning has always been the great salve. Once they patch up their current drama, the Lakers will gather themselves, begin to acknowledge their strengths, rebuild trust and improve a defense that already ranks third in the Western Conference and figures to improve if they buy into what Mike Brown is selling.
The Lakers and Clippers have split their two regular-season meetings in games that seem like they took place eons ago. The contrast between the two teams -- beyond history and current brand appeal -- are profound. The Clippers rely on athleticism, while the Lakers exploit their natural length. Both Paul and Kobe Bryant are perimeter predators, but while Paul works furtively, Bryant attacks suddenly without conscience (In the Lakers' loss on the Clippers' home floor, Bryant torched the Clips for 42 points on a barrage of contested, otherworldly jumpers).
Butler would have to account for Bryant, while Griffin, Jordan and Martin would contend with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on both ends -- as will Paul, who will encounter obstacles in the hard-showing Lakers big men. The Lakers' deficiencies at point guard and small forward would afford the Clippers the opportunity to help and cover up their defensive mistakes -- which tend to be many.
A Lakers-Clippers playoff series would risk tipping the L.A. Basin into Santa Monica Bay, and the hysteria in the region would likely carry over onto the court, where the two teams have communicated very clearly that they don't care for one another. But Angelenos and any NBA fan who truly loves an epic grudge match would find a lot to like.
Kevin Arnovitz cover the NBA for ESPN.com and is editor of the TrueHoop Network. You can listen to him weekly on ESPNLA's "The Clippers Podcast."