Even as the Los Angeles Clippers were enjoying back-to-back franchise best seasons in the first two years of the Chris Paul era, there was the feeling that the team might come out flat in any one game and lose to a bad team. All teams suffer bad losses, and perhaps it's observation bias, but the Vinny Del Negro Clippers seemed more susceptible to bad losses than a good team should be. Losses to the 12-27 Nets and the 11-35 Hornets in March 2012, to the 16-30 Raptors and the 11-35 Wizards in Feb 2013, to the 23-44 Kings in March 2013 -- those are really ugly losses for a team playing for playoff seeding and supposedly positioning itself for a postseason run.
The way this season started felt like more of the same. Five games into the season, the Clippers had already lost to the Lakers and the Magic, two teams that were projected to be bad to very bad this season, which we can say with the benefit of hindsight were indeed just as bad as we thought they'd be. (To be fair, the Lakers were much healthier then, but still were not a good team.) And the bad losses kept coming -- in their first 21 games, the Clippers also lost to the Hawks and the Cavs. By winning percentage, those are the Clippers four worst losses, and they all occurred in the first six weeks of the season.
It's been over 11 weeks since the Clippers lost to the Cavs in Cleveland, and while there have certainly been winnable games that the team has managed to lose in that time, there hasn't been anything really approaching the disastrous levels of a loss to the Magic or the Lakers. Getting blown out by the Suns at home in late December was not good by any means, but the Suns have made many good teams look bad this season. The road loss in Charlotte might seem ugly until you realize that the Bobcats are currently on a 12-7 run that began about a week before the Clippers came to town. At Charlotte might not be a good loss, but it's not really a bad loss either.
Consider this: the Clippers have lost 12 times since that early December game in Cleveland. Of those 12, five came on the second night of back to back road games, four of those against teams with winning percentages north of .600. They also lost to the Heat and the Spurs, last season's NBA Finalists in that span, and lost a game in Oakland from which Blake Griffin was wrongly ejected. When the worst losses over the course of a stretch of 39 games are nailbiters on the road to teams just below .500 (Charlotte and Denver), well, that's a pretty consistent stretch of basketball.
The fact that the vast majority of it has come with one or both of the team's starting guards injured just makes it that much more impressive.
Is this a trend? Or just a random stretch of games? To say that the Rivers Clippers might be more consistent on a night to night basis than the Del Negro Clippers would certainly fit the conventional wisdom.
I bring all of this up in the context of the Clippers upcoming schedule. The team only has one game left against a team in the top four of the league. They only have three more road back to backs left (though they are tough ones, at Denver, Dallas and Portland). A baker's dozen of the team's final 22 opponents are currently under .500. If the Clippers can continue to avoid bad losses they way they have been, while also continuing to rack up some quality wins, the winning percentage of these final 22 games could look mighty impressive. I'm not expecting them to reach my pre-season prediction of 60 wins (although the 20-2 record that it would require is not entirely out of the realm of possibility). I do however expect them to set a new franchise record for winning percentage, which would mean finishing 17-5 from this point forward.
Injuries will apparently continue to be a part of this story. A record setting 57 win season depends in part on the team finally getting fully healthy and the recent news on that front is trending towards the bad end of the spectrum. Not only did Jamal Crawford leave the game last night with a strained calf, but the whispers concerning J.J. Redick's disc problem are getting more ominous. There's nothing specific on Redick, and the beat writers who are implying that the Clippers are more concerned than they were before may be reading to much into the situation -- after all, Redick is simply resting right now, which is exactly what we knew he would be doing when the Clippers shut him down. But still, it's a concern.
The Clippers got relatively good news from Crawford's MRI: a mild strain and he's day-to-day. With just one game against the Pelicans this Saturday before they play in Phoenix on Tuesday, Crawford could actually rest for five full days while missing just one game -- and the Pelicans figure to be very beatable with Anthony Davis day-to-day himself with a sprained shoulder.
If the team can get healthy they could have a very solid close to the season. The addition of Glen Davis is going to make a big difference in the second unit, and Danny Granger and/or Ben Gordon may be bolstering the effort in the very near future as well. If the Clippers can keep winning the games they're supposed to win while adding firepower to take on the elite teams of the conference, it could be a very exciting final seven weeks.