LOS ANGELES -- As Vinny Del Negro walked around the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room before Sunday's game against the New York Knicks, he stopped and eyed the NBA standings board posted near the television.
He walked toward it, jokingly squinting at the percentage points that separated the Clippers from the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets for the No. 3 seed. The Clippers currently hold the spot, and Del Negro doesn't want that to change anytime soon.
Del Negro was then reminded that slipping to the No. 4 seed would mean a possible first-round matchup with either the Grizzlies or Nuggets.
He didn't need the reminder as he raised his eyebrows, smiled and shook his head while walking out of the locker room.
There are 15 games left in the Clippers' season, and, suddenly, the standings that have been posted in the Clippers' locker room since opening day have new meaning. The Clippers might say generically that they simply want to win as many games as possible and get the highest seed possible; the truth is they don't want to fall lower than third in the West.
The Clippers know from experience that a 4-5 first-round series is a crapshoot. Last season, they came in as the fifth seed and somehow found a way to beat the fourth-seeded Grizzlies by coming back from 27 points down in Game 1 and beating the Grizzlies in Memphis in Game 7. Chances are that they'd be in a similar slugfest if they were matched up with the Grizzlies (again) or Denver in the first round.
Worse yet, they might be forced to play without home-court advantage in the first round if the Grizzlies and Nuggets pass them in the standings. The Clippers are only one game in front of both teams in the standings.
Last season, the Clippers were a team that seemed happy to be in the playoffs. It was the first postseason experience for players like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe. They wanted a high seed but were perfectly content with the fifth seed. They wanted to win their first-round playoff series but anything after that was seemingly icing on the cake.
This season is different. At least, it's supposed to be. The Clippers not only expect to get a top-three seed but were the No. 1 seed earlier this season. They not only want to win their first-round series, they want to get to the conference finals and have a chance to win a title.
This isn't a team that expected to be battling for home court in the first round with 15 games left in the season. They had the best record in the NBA at the midway point of the season. The Clippers, however, were 13-12 coming into Sunday's game after starting the season 32-9. The Clippers are better than a .500 team but haven't played like it since the midway point of the season while they battled injuries and lineup changes.
While trying not to take a page from their hallway neighbors at Staples Center, the Clippers sounded like a team that was beginning a new season on Sunday. Or at least beginning the stretch run to this season and forgetting what has happened since the midpoint of this season.
"I was just telling the guys that we have to start playing playoff basketball now," Chauncey Billups said. "You can't just turn on a light switch and say, 'All right, it's playoff basketball.' You have to start playing now, especially with the positioning that we're going through and going to face for the final 15 games. You have to start playing that way right now."
It looked as if the Clippers might have started the process of flipping that light switch in the second half of their 93-80 win over the New York Knicks on Sunday. After a lackadaisical first half in which the Clippers fell behind by eight points early and turned the ball over 10 times, Del Negro ripped into his team and showed them some lowlights of the first half to drive home his point.
"We talked about pace, and we watched a few clips of us walking the ball up the court," Griffin said. "Coach Del Negro wasn't pleased with that, so we had to make adjustments."
The Clippers know they will need to make more adjustments if they are to finish the season the same way they started it. And even then, playoff basketball is different than regular-season basketball. Knicks forward Kenyon Martin, who was with the Clippers last season, knows that firsthand, and he doesn't think the Clippers' style will translate well in the postseason.
"They can't do it in the playoffs, so it doesn't matter," Martin said. "Regular season, it's all up-and-down. We know how the game goes in the regular season."
Martin didn't want to elaborate, adding only, "I don't care what they do, to be honest with you. I hope they lose every game."
The Clippers won't lose every game down the stretch, but even losing half of them would doom their chances of getting home-court advantage in the first round. And that would only be half the problem with finishing the season on a bad run.
"You want to be playing not just for seeding, but you just want to be playing well going into the playoffs obviously," Griffin said. "It's the time when everybody's intensity needs to be turned up, and we need to be dialed in for every game, no matter who we're playing, home or away. We need every game. They're all big games from here on out."