LOS ANGELES: It’s mid-March and a simple question has yet to yield any solid answers.
Who are the Clippers?
Some nights, they’ve looked like bona fide darkhorse contenders, a team forgotten because of Golden State’s transcendence and the Spurs continuous proficiency.
And others, they’re pedestrian.
They looked overwhelmed Sunday against Cleveland, disinterested in other home losses. But, they go out on the road and battle for a dominant win in Dallas and a defensive battle in Atlanta.
As Coach Doc Rivers pointed out Sunday, the records at home and on the road essentially mirror one another, with the Clippers owning one more loss (12) at Staples Center than on the road (11).
That’s good news for what the Clippers have staring at them – a five-game trip against five teams that made the playoffs last season.
Tuesday, they go to San Antonio, a place where no one other than the Spurs has won this season. Then, they go to Houston, a place where the Clippers haven’t won since Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. From there, it’s to Memphis for what’s always a battle. There’s a quick stop in New Orleans before the Clippers head for Oakland to play the Warriors, another team undefeated on their home court.
If the Clippers are good during the stretch, they can stay in the race for the No. 3 seed in the West. If they’re bad, home-court advantage in the first round could suddenly be in doubt.
But even if the Clippers finish this trip with a winning record – a real accomplishment – are we any closer to knowing what the Clippers can be in late April and May?
That’s all still up in the air while Blake Griffin continues to work his way back onto the floor.
And that’s what’s hanging over everything.
“As you get the schedule in the summer and you glance over it, this trip stood out. It’s our fifth really long trip this season,” J.J. Redick said. “… Two of the sets are back-to-back. It is as difficult as you can get and we are still waiting on Blake to get back.”
The Clippers have done better than expected without one of their stars on the court, but they’re not kidding themselves. They need Griffin back.
And maybe news this weekend that his return will be delayed (again) discouraged the locker room.
Two of the Clippers’ most lopsided losses this season came in games immediately followed roadblocks to Griffin’s return.
After Griffin was involved in a fight with assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, the Clippers trudged their way through a loss in Toronto. And, then there was Sunday’s “embarrassing” loss.
No one within the Clippers believed the team is better off without Griffin on the court despite the 25-10 record. Some will, however, admit that the injury sharpened the focus of a group that’s maybe a little bored with the rigors of the regular season.
Disappointing exits in the past three seasons have made this group eager for the final miles of the marathon – the hurdles that they’ve been unable to clear in the past.
If Griffin is back, healthy, we might find out just what this team is.
Are they good enough to challenge and beat the very best in the NBA? Are they simply not good enough?
But if Griffin’s return is again delayed, another round of excuses can be created. And those answers we so desperately seek about the Clippers, well, they will just have to wait.