The Los Angeles Clippers have been struggling for over a month now. Like the infamous 'busted water pipe' game in Memphis that soured an entire season two years ago, the Clippers seemed to lose their mojo this year on February 18, when Ryan Gomes' inbounds pass led Chris Paul into the backcourt with the Clippers leading by three and just seconds remaining. The Clippers had played well in that game to that point, well enough to beat a Spurs team that they never beat -- but in those few seconds, Paul threw the ball to Gary Neal to avoid a violation, Neal sank a three pointer to force overtime -- and the Clippers haven't been the same since.
Beginning with that game on February 18, the Clippers lost 12 out of 19 games. But even in their 7 wins over that time, they never looked sustainably good. A win in San Antonio on March 9 looks great on paper, but the simple fact is that the Clippers shot a ridiculous percentage from deep that game, which is not a recipe for long term success. The other recent wins have tended to be hard-fought -- a lot of fourth quarter comebacks, a lot of Chris Paul heroics.
Until Saturday that is. Saturday was different. For one thing, the sputtering Clippers offense scored more than 100 points again after being held below the century mark for nine straight games. But most importantly, the Clippers played a full 48 minute game, avoiding the lulls that have constantly let opponents back into games over the past five weeks.
The fact that Memphis was in a virtual tie with the Clippers in the standings at the time made the win even more significant. Amazingly, despite the 7-12 stretch, the Clippers remain in fourth place in the Western Conference, in position for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. And the rest of this home stand offers a golden opportunity to solidify their position. The win over the Grizzlies was a great start -- the Clippers now face four more Western Conference foes, all with losing road records, including several who are chasing one of the eight coveted playoff spots.
- Monday -- New Orleans Hornets -- 7-15 on the road -- The Hornets aren't a threat to displace the Clippers in the playoffs, but L.A. still has plenty of incentive to win this game. The loss in New Orleans was embarrassing, not to mention that Jason Smith's flagrant foul on Blake Griffin should provide the team with all the extra incentive it needs. Smith won't be playing as he serves his suspension, but that won't matter a lot -- motivation has seemed to be an issue for the Clippers, but avenging Thursday's loss while demonstrating to New Orleans that they won't be intimidated should be plenty.
- Wednesday -- Phoenix Suns -- 10-14 on the road -- The Clippers are 0-2 against the Suns this season, including probably their most embarrassing loss of the season against a Phoenix team playing without Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Like the Hornets loss, the Clippers totally lost their focus against Phoenix, losing a big lead and scoring just 12 points in the fourth quarter. The Suns are just two games outside of the playoffs at present, so an L.A. win has the double benefit of hurting Phoenix' playoff aspirations. Winless against the Suns and embarrassed just two weeks earlier, again the Clippers should have plenty of motivation in this game.
- Friday - Portland Trail Blazers - 7-17 on the road -- Portland is probably not a threat to get back into the playoff race, but you don't want them getting any ideas. The Trail Blazers have been dismal on the road all season, and they as much as conceded this season by trading away two starters for future draft picks at the trade deadline. Of course, the Clippers have gotten into trouble time and again this season by taking teams lightly, and this game seems like a trap in that regard. Perhaps being on ESPN that night will help get the Clippers focused.
- Saturday - Utah Jazz - 7-18 on the road -- Utah has also been terrible on the road, but they've been one of the hottest teams in the league recently as well. They are one of several teams currently bunched around the ninth spot in the West -- and therefore one of the teams the Clippers need to stay ahead of. The Western Conference standings should provide all the incentive necessary to get the Clippers focused on this game.
Four home games this week. Four opponents with poor road records. Plenty of motivation to help a sometimes unfocused Clippers team come out with purpose and urgency. Taken together, it's an opportunity to build some momentum, to put some distance between the team and their recent poor play, to solidify their position in the playoff race. The Clippers have not been a particularly good home team recently, and they've continually experienced lulls that have cost them in winnable games, and that could easily happen here as well. But if the Clippers can take care of business this week, the season will be back on track.