Following a convincing 99-91 road defeat of the Indiana Pacers Thursday night, the L.A. Clippers look to be getting back to elite form just in time for a big stretch run and a potential NBA title push.
Knocking off the gritty Pacers in Banker's Life Fieldhouse is no easy task; Indy had won 24 of its previous 29 home games. But behind another brilliant effort from Chris Paul and the kind of defensive dominance that has marked L.A.'s best stretches of play this year, the Clips built a massive lead before holding off a late Pacer comeback attempt.
Winners of eight of their last 10, the Clips appear to be peaking at the right time. But that's been said before.
After stringing together 17 consecutive victories (including an undefeated month of December), the Clippers played sub-.500 ball over their next 21 games. So no matter how good L.A. has looked of late, there's always going to be some trepidation involved with any proclamations of their worthiness for title contention.
Still, this latest stretch has had a different feel about it.
For starters, all hands are finally on deck. Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill have been working themselves back into the rotation, and, most impressively, Lamar Odom has hooked himself up to the rejuvenation machine. After struggling to get himself in shape, Odom has put together a solid February, complete with 47 percent shooting and a big role in L.A.'s vaunted bench brigade.
Because of the Clippers' track record of streaky play, it's hard to answer the question of whether they'll keep up their recent excellence with any certainty. Observers need only take a look at the Clips' embarrassing beatdown at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs last week for evidence of optimism's frailty.
The benefits of continued good play are obvious, though.
If the Clips keep up their current pace and either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs falter, L.A.'s current 3.5-game deficit in the West could quickly disappear. The world may not be ready to see the Clippers as a No. 1 seed, but it's awfully close to happening.
In addition to potential seeding advantages, the Clips can reap the rewards of big leads down the stretch by resting CP3 and Blake Griffin, allowing the bumps and bruises of a rough season to heal before the playoffs start.
Plus, starters who have slipped a bit lately could take advantage of some increased playing time to round into form before the games really start to matter in April.
Clips are basically locked into a top-4 seed - they should be using these last 6 weeks to get DeAndre crunch-time reps. He needs them.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 1, 2013
If the Clips hit the postseason with health, depth and strong chemistry, they'll pose a dangerous threat to anyone they face. Well, almost anyone.
At present, the Clippers have a firm hold on the third seed in the West, which means their potential matchup in the first round would (obviously) be the sixth seed. The occupant of that spot is none other than the feisty Golden State Warriors, a team that has handily beaten the Clippers in three out of four contests this year.
Avoiding a potential matchup with the Warriors might be the biggest reason of all for the Clips to keep their collective foot on the accelerator.
Worrisome matchups aside, the Clippers have 20 more regular-season games to smooth out their rough edges, completely integrate all of their returning pieces, and get healthy. If they keep playing like they have in recent weeks, they'll be able to accomplish all three of those goals just as the playoffs begin.
That'd be some pretty good timing.