The Los Angeles Clippers haven't lost in three weeks, and the resulting 9-game winning streak is the longest in the NBA. For the first time all season, LAC's defensive efficiency has risen to the top 10 in the NBA, and their always-stellar offense is in the top 5 in the league. The Clippers have undoubtedly been an improved team in this recent stretch, with increased minutes for Pablo Prigioni, Wes Johnson, and Cole Aldrich making up for the absence of Blake Griffin, sparking the Clippers to an average margin of +11.0 points per game during that span.
Justin Russo asked the question: have the Clippers been better, luckier, or both? The answer is probably both, but their luck is soon to run out, as the soft scheduling turns brutal as the Clippers enter the second half of January.
There's two ways to measure opponent record after-the-fact, and it's probably irresponsible to include only one but not the other. Going off of current record, the Clippers played absolutely no teams at or over .500 during their winning streak. Going off of record at the time, the Clippers played at least 3, by my count: Charlotte (17-13 entering the first match-up) and Washington(14-14 going into the game). Now, the truth is that neither of those teams' records were particularly formidable, and they certainly aren't to be counted among the elite teams in the NBA, but it's at least noteworthy that Charlotte was 17-13 on December 30th before playing the Clippers, and have since lost 7 straight (including both games against LAC) to put them below .500. It's impossible to know which team Charlotte "really" is, but there's little doubt that they were playing better and viewed as a tougher match-up at the time of the game than they are now in retrospect.
Washington, on the other hand, has dipped below .500 due to some rough scheduling that began with that Clippers game--losses to LAC, Toronto twice, Cleveland, and Miami, and wins over Chicago and Orlando twice are about par for a .500-level team. By my quick math, only 4 of their next 10 opponents are .500 teams--so we could easily be looking at an above-.500 team on this streak in a couple of weeks.
Now, the streak was a relatively easy stretch for the Clippers regardless of what I laid out above. Most of their opponents faced serious injuries, and even if we measure opponent record at the time of the game, the Clippers still only played two .500 teams out of nine opponents. For the record, here are the combined opponent records during the streak by both measures:
Current Record: 118-220 (.349)
Record at time of match-up: 104-183 (.362)
The truth is that the schedule was highly favorable no matter how you look at it--but using just the measurement of .500 teams, and then picking and choosing when you look at those teams' records to determine if they were .500 or not, seems a little arbitrary to me.
It's probably time to move on from over-analyzing this 9-game streak; as Justin pointed out in his article, it's great to have these 9 wins, but they don't necessarily prove anything going forward, they just help out in the standings. Of much greater concern is the next 10 games, for while the national media is quick to dismiss the Clippers' current streak as a byproduct of the scheduling, I doubt they'll be so quick to point at the slate of opponents if the Clippers find themselves sliding in the next few weeks against elite competition.
199-183 (.521). That's hardly intimidating, right? An average record of about .500 over the next 10 games? Unfortunately, it still doesn't tell the whole story. The Clippers' upcoming stretch features games against all 6 of the East's top teams--vs. Miami, @ Cleveland, @ Toronto, @ Indiana, @ Atlanta, vs Chicago. The other four teams finish out the schedule: Sacramento (fighting for a playoff seed, no slouch), Houston (much more dangerous than their 19-19 record suggests), New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers. It seems to me that the game against the Lakers is the only game in which the Clippers should have a solid upper hand--that's 1 game out of 10, compared to 8 out of 9 in the previous stretch (the first Charlotte game being the exception).
It's not only the opponents that makes this stretch difficult, but the day-to-day scheduling. The Clippers had 20 days to play 9 games, starting with three days of rest before opening the streak on Christmas against the Lakers, and ending on the 10th. After these three home games against Miami, Sacramento, and Houston, the Clippers will play 7 games in 11 days, including a brutal road trip. LAC will play a 5-in-7 stretch (the roughest week the NBA schedules teams to play) that features all 5 road games with travel, and two brutal back-to-backs (@ Cleveland, @ New York; @ Indiana, @ Atlanta). Those back-to-backs sandwich another tough road game in Toronto.
That 5-game roadie is probably LAC's toughest week of the season when opponent record, number of games, and travel are taken into account (see also: any week in March). The three games prior are tough but winnable, even without Blake Griffin. However, that road trip is going to be tough, even if Blake is back and healthy. Wins no. 10, 11, and 12 will be harder to string together than the first nine were--but even if the Clippers can pull that off, don't be surprised if this streak doesn't live to see its teens (or comes to a conclusion shortly thereafter).