[Editor’s note: The Clippers host the Celtics Thursday night on TNT (10:30 ET).]
HANG TIME WEST — Of course the Clippers are good. They were supposed to be. No one could have seen 14 wins in a row coming with a lineup reduced by injury. But 53 to 55 wins, top four in the West with the Thunder, Spurs and another Staples Center tenant, two All-Star starters, an MVP candidate at point guard, and arguably the best depth in the league? Those were all fair reads from the beginning.
The 22-6 record jumps out because of the sparkle: The longest win streak in the league in 2012-13, the NBA’s best record as late as Christmas for the first time in franchise history. The fact that it’s such a contrast – the Clippers! – is an attention-getter as well.
Now let’s see what they’ve really got.
The 14-game winning streak has been a great ride, but it’s come mostly on the back of weak opponents in what by the end of the season should turn out to essentially be a semi-tour of lottery teams. The Clippers did exactly what they were supposed to do, smacking aside the sparring partners by an average of 15.4 points per contest and allowing 100 points just twice. What the Clippers did not do, because the schedule would not allow it, was send an accurate read of where they are.
That comes now. Beginning with Tuesday night’s victory over the Nuggets in Los Angeles, the Clippers have stepped into a much tougher stretch of schedule, filled with teams that are somewhere between possibly and probably bound for the playoffs.
The last 14 games: Timberwolves, Kings (twice), Jazz, Mavericks, Suns (twice), Raptors, Bulls, Bobcats, Bucks, Pistons, Hornets, Nuggets. The 12 different opponents have a combined winning percentage of .405 today.
The next 15 games: Celtics, Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Warriors (three times), Lakers, Mavericks, Magic, Grizzlies, Rockets, Timberwolves, Wizards and Thunder. The 12 different opponents have a combined winning percentage of .523, and that’s with 3-22 Washington.
The encouraging part for the Clippers is that they already have passed a schedule test this season. That was back when they were 2-2 and had given back the 2-0 start of wins over the Grizzlies and Lakers by losing to the Warriors (which doesn’t look nearly as bad now) and the Cavaliers. A lot of tough opponents were coming up. It was a big early-season moment … and they responded by winning six in a row.
Same thing this time, only without losses anywhere in sight. If the Clippers are still making forward progress in a month, then they’ll really have something. A big part of that will be the health issues and how they transition with returning players.
As well as things are going on the court, the best part about the Clippers now is their attitude, the way coach Vinny Del Negro said after beating Denver that “It’s nice. But it’s Christmas. We’ve got a long way to go and lot of improvements to make.” And how Chris Paul noted that “We always talk about the big picture because this is fool’s gold. You don’t play for the regular season. … We still got to keep building. We’ll know when we’re where we want to be, but we still have a ways to go.”
Perfect mindset. Because they still do have a long way to go.