Clippers are not an elite team

LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul shook his head as the question was being asked and almost laughed before he answered it.

A reporter wanted to know if the Los Angeles Clippers' 108-104 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday afternoon on ABC would hurt the Clippers' perception nationally.

"That doesn't do anything for you," Paul said. "Unless you're trying to get into the NCAA tournament, it doesn't do anything for you."

Paul is right. Perception doesn't do much for a team come playoff time. But being one of the top four teams in the NBA also doesn't do much for a team with championship aspirations. This isn't the NCAA, where they give No. 1 seeds to the top four teams and simply getting to the Final Four is a banner-worthy accomplishment.

Over the course of this season, the Clippers have proven they are one of the top four teams in the league. They are four games behind the San Antonio Spurs and have won as many games as the Miami Heat and Thunder. They beat the Spurs twice and the Heat once before Nov. 20 -- but since then they are 0-5 against Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Miami, including a three-game season sweep at the hands of the Thunder.

If perception does mean anything, the Clippers' two losses to Miami and San Antonio last month didn't help it very much. They lost to the Spurs by 26 and the Heat by 22, falling behind by at least 32 points in the second half of each game. In their three losses to Oklahoma City, Miami and San Antonio over the past four weeks, the Clippers haven't led by more than three points.

The Clippers might be the fourth-best team in the league, but they've shown recently that there is a gap right now between the top three teams and the Clippers. Considering two of those three teams are in the West, that doesn't bode well for a Clippers team trying to advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

As good as the Clippers looked at the midway point of this season -- when they had the best record in the NBA and some signature wins -- they haven't done anything since then that would make anyone believe they would beat the Heat, Spurs or Thunder in a seven-game playoff series.

Paul didn't seem overly concerned by the losses, and especially the fact that the Thunder swept the season series against the Clippers.

"It doesn't mean anything," Paul said. "I think last year we were 3-1 against (Oklahoma City) during the season and they went to the NBA Finals. Both teams are still building, jockeying for position and stuff like that. But we got to keep building up wins because maybe some time again later in the season we'll see them again."

If the Clippers do see the Thunder again, they likely won't have home court after Sunday's loss. The Clippers could have momentarily taken the No. 2 seed with a win on Sunday, but at this point it looks like they're a good bet to finish the season as the No. 3 seed behind the Spurs and Thunder.

Maybe the Clippers can take some solace in the fact that they were behind by 19 points in the third quarter and instead of folding and falling behind by 32 as they did against Miami and San Antonio, they fought back and even took a 100-99 lead with 1:30 left.

After the game, however, no one in the Clippers' locker room was hanging his hat on the team's failed comeback and making it a game at the end.

"There's no such thing as moral victories to us," Blake Griffin said. "We've been in these situations before but we don't want to put ourselves in that situation. The way we fought back -- if you're going to try and take a positive away -- the way we fought back, that's good but we've got to be better from start to finish to beat a team like this."

The Clippers were able to come back by controlling their turnovers and using a 3-2 zone defense, which is something they may implement earlier in the game if they play the Thunder again.

"I definitely think it's something we can use in the future," Paul said. "It worked there for us up until those last two possessions. That defense helped us. That's what helped us get back into the game. I think we've got to keep working on it. It's something that can be a weapon for us."

One of the biggest reasons the Clippers might struggle and find it hard to beat elite teams in the playoffs is their half-court offense, which simply is not as good as their transition game. Paul will be the first to admit the Clippers' half-court offense needs to be better if the Clippers are to play well into June.

"We're not the best half-court team," Paul said. "We're great when we're getting stops and getting out in transition. We're working on it. We just got to keep getting better at it. We're good in the half court but obviously we're better in transition. We need our defense to dictate our offense."

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said there is plenty of time left in the season (20 games) to not only improve their half-court offense, but also potentially improve their playoff seeding. But he wasn't going to put too much stock in Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City, or the Clippers' losses to Miami and San Antonio last month.

"We know we're for real," Del Negro said. "We've won enough national TV games to know we're for real. Our record speaks for itself."