DALLAS — The Clippers’ pre-game locker room thumped with music as players jovially bounded about, getting in workouts with trainers on the floor of the cramped visitor’s locker room, telling stories as they sat at their locker stalls, laughing at a constant stream of jokes and generally having a good time.
This young, athletically gifted bunch, on its way to the playoffs for a second consecutive season for only the second time in the franchise’s 28-year history in Los Angeles, is known for its loose, if not the loosest, locker room in the league.
But the postgame scene in there is more frequently becoming hushed and tense. Such was the case Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center. The Clippers couldn’t build upon second-half leads, lost their composure and drew two costly technicals, mostly struggled in the half-court and couldn’t hold down a two-point lead in the final five seconds in losing 109-102 in overtime to the surging Dallas Mavericks just trying to slip in the backdoor of the playoffs.
Locked in a fight for seeds 3-5 with Denver and Memphis, L.A. dropped to fourth with three more road games in four nights starting tonight at New Orleans. They’re at San Antonio on Friday and Houston on Sunday.
As the regular season draws to a close, the Clippers, 5-5 in their last 10, seem to be creating more questions about their postseason viability than stamping their card as Western Conference title contenders.
“We had trouble executing down the stretch. That’s on me,” said Blake Griffin, who struggled to just 14 points on 4-for-12 shooting, and whose apparent, off-balance game-winning bucket with 0.4 seconds left was wiped away for using his forearm to push off Dirk Nowitzki. “Very disappointing, especially with Memphis and Denver losing [Monday] night. We needed to take advantage of it and we didn’t.”
Lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro, who says he’s not concerned with his future, is always a target for criticism. Their often stale offensive sets remain an issue. They haven’t won more than four in a row since reeling off 17 straight in long ago December. Homecourt advantage is far from a lock and it remains to be seen if Del Negro’s deep rotation is sustainable, or even beneficial, in the playoffs.
“For us, I don’t think there’s any pressure,” said Chris Paul, who had a season-high 33 points, but also seven turnovers to match his season-high from just three games earlier when the Clips melted away at Sacramento. “For us, I think it’s just will, you got to have that will and just fight to the end. We’re going to do that, we’re going to do that. We’re going to keep trying to compete. We’re going to have an opportunity to do something that’s never been done, winning 50 games and winning a division, and not being satisfied with that.”
Paul does bring up a good point that perhaps ought to force everyone to take a step back in scrutinizing this team and view the larger picture. This is only Year 2 of the CP3 era, with the first being a lockout-shortened season. What has been accomplished is remarkable in terms of the franchise’s putrid history.
The Clippers need two wins to reach 50 for the first time in its existence in L.A., San Diego or Buffalo going back to the 1970-71 season, and the franchise has never won a division title. The Clips hold a 7 1/2-game lead in the Pacific over Golden State with 11 to play.
“I tell you, I could care less about the expectations or how happy people are that we win,” Paul said. “At the end of the day we’re playing for one reason and that’s to win a championship.”
In Del Negro’s first season, the year before Paul came into the picture, L.A. won 32 games. They’ve won 88 since, and expectations are that this team can challenge Oklahoma City for the West crown.
“The expectations, sometimes people get a little delusional in terms of how you’re going to get there and what you’re going to do, and people get sick of the word ‘process’ and things like that probably, but that’s what it is,” Del Negro said. “It’s a long NBA season. You got to handle the injuries, you got to handle a lot of things. I feel we’re in a pretty good position and we have to finish the season off strong and then it will come down to our health going into the playoffs.”
Chauncey Billups missed his 52nd game Tuesday night, but is expected to return on the road trip and giving the Clippers a clean bill of health. Paul said Billups changes the offense.
“Definitely a concern, but something that we can work at,” Paul said of the halfcourt offense. “We’re going to keep trying to work at it. We move the ball a little bit different when Chauncey’s out there because he’s another playmaker, another guard.”
Lob City has been one of the great stories the last couple seasons, and certainly no one expects Paul, a free agent this summer, to leave the franchise he’s turned around.
The same can’t be said for Del Negro if the Clips make a quick exit out of the playoffs.
This will get even more interesting in about three more weeks.