Clippers out to protect home court advantage

It’s the same two teams that played to the seventh game in last year’s playoffs. They compiled the same record of 56-26 over the 2012-13 season.
But for the Clippers, tonight’s Game 1 of their best-of-7 Western Conference playoff series does have a distinctly different feel as they face Memphis at Staples Center (Fox Sports West, ESPN).
“Last year was last year, this is a totally different team,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We have the home court, so we want to take advantage of it.”
It’s no secret that the contrasts of the two teams, and how they want to impose their own strengths, will figure prominently in the outcome of the series. The Clippers, of course, would limke nothing better to get their high-wire act going in transition and the Grizzlies would prefer to bludgeon their opponents with a physical game.
Yet the Clippers believe they are equipped to deal with that and are riding the confidence of having won three of the four meetings this season with the Grizzlies, including a 91-87 road victory in the last week of the season.
“DeAndre (Jordan) and Blake (Griffin) are young and physical themselves, so I don’t see that as an issue,” Del Negro said. “We know what type of game they like to play. We like to play our style, play at a tempo that’s comfortable for us and one way we can do that is by rebounding the ball well and being physical ourselves and doing all the little things.
“Our guards have to rebound the ball well and then play the tempo we want to play. The physicality takes care of itself. We just have to battle through it, keep our emotions in check and it comes down to execution.”
Neither team listed a player under the injury report. Griffin experienced back spasms during the regular season finale in Sacramento, but Del Negro said Griffin practiced without incident on Friday.

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FIVE THINGS TO WATCH BETWEEN CLIPPERS/MEMPHIS

By Vincent Bonsignore

vincent.bonsignoire@dailynews.com

twitter.com@DailyNewsVinny

With the Clippers opening the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, here are five quick things to keep an eye on:

1. CAN THE CLIPPERS HEALTH HOLD UP

The Clipper’s have battled through injuries all season, some big, some small, but a constant issue all year. They come into the postseason relatively healthy, although Chauncey Billups is still battling leg problems and Caron Butler’s knee has been a sore spot for some time. Billups, especially, is a concern early on and his minutes will be monitored as he works his way back into shape. He returned after an eight-game absence Tuesday against the Portland Trailblazers, and it will still take time to round into form. The Clippers have shown they can win without their veteran leader – remember, the beat the Grizzlies in seven games last year without Billups playing a game – but they are a much better team with him healthy and playing well, especially this time of year.

 

2. CAN THE GRIZZLIES SCORE ENOUGH TO KEEP UP

Yes, Memphis benefited from the mid-season trade that sent leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto and brought Tayshaun Prince to the Grizzlies. Defensively, they are a better team and the ball moves better offensively. Putting it in the basket has been a challenge, though, and as they showed in a loss to the Clippers at home last Saturday, their lack of firepower is a major issue. Gay, for all the concern about how much he was getting paid, was a consistent scorer and the Grizzlies might learn the hard way his production isn’t easily made up for in the playoffs.

3. CAN DeANDRE JORDAN MATCH UP WITH MARC GASOL

The Clippers big man had one of his most efficient games of the year against the Grizzlies last Saturday with 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. If the Clippers can get that kind of production from him in the first round, they should soar into the semifinals. The problem is Jordan hasn’t reached the point where he can string together performances like that on a consistent basis, too often playing well one night but then vanishing the next. The Clippers have won a franchise-best 56 games dealing with those inconsistencies, but can they win four out of the next seven against the Grizzlies is he falls into that trend?

4. CAN THE CLIPPERS PLAY SMALL BALL?

We all know Lob City leads the league in highlight plays. Between the dunks of Blake Griffin and Jordan and the cross-over moves of Jamal Crawford and the all-oop passing of Chris Paul, they are a television sports producer’s dream. And while that’s all well and good in the regular season, winning playoff games comes down to focus, execution and an ability to make the most out of every offensive and defensive sequence. Do the Clippers have the maturity and fortitude to grind out each possession, execute their sets precisely and take care of the ball? Conversely, do they have it in them play after play after play to communicate, rotate and help each other defensively? If so, they should win this series easily.

5. IS BLAKE GRIFFIN READY FOR PRIMETIME?

We all remember Griffin limping around last year as the Clippers beat Memphis in seven games before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep. It didn’t take a doctor to understand Griffin was playing at less than 80 percent capacity, and that is pushing it. This year he goes into the playoffs as healthy as can be, and presumably ready to another step on his way to stardom. Standing in his way are the physical, aggressive Grizzlies, who like to muck games up and take opponents out of their game. Griffin has made strides keeping his emotions in check this year; especially when it comes to his issues with the physical liberties opponents take on him and what he perceives as indifference from the referees. That maturity will be tested big time against the Grizzlies, who will try to get into his head. If he can rise above it he and the Clippers should be fine. If not, the edge goes to Memphis.

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Clippers not forgetting Eric Bledsoe, Willie Green

With the return of Chauncey Billups after missing eight games, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro’s favorite problem resurfaced for the regular season’s final two games.
That’s getting enough time for his deep bench, particularly guards Willie Green and Eric Bledsoe.
Green has been on fire in the past month, hitting 23 of his 36 3-pointers in that span entering Tuesday’s game against Portland. That 64-percent shooting is the tops in the league during that period and increased Green’s season percentage to 43.0, seventh-best in the NBA.
“It’s been challenging all year,” Del Negro said. “We’ve had enough injuries where we’ve been able to work through it, but Willie deserves to play, Eric Bledsoe deserves to play more at times. Grant Hill is not getting a great opportunity but every time we put him in he’s been productive.”
Bledsoe, who was hot in January and early February while Billups and Chris Paul missed time with injuries, went through a slump and then the Clippers finally sat him to heal a nagging calf injury.
“He tried to play through it, it wasn’t right, we were scared it was getting really tight and he was going to really strain it and be out for a while,” Del Negro said. “We sat him down for an extended period to get it right because he gives us an edge to us defensively and with the speed he plays with.
“We knew that was going to be a factor for us. I feel he’s playing with a lot of confidence, his energy and the way he plays is very important especially with that second unit. Or if he’s out there with Chris, how he uses his athleticism to pressure the basketball defensively. He’s done a very good job for us.”
Bledsoe’s role could take on added significance if the Clippers match up with Memphis and guard Mike Conley in the playoffs.
“He changes our complexion with his speed,” Del Negro said. “He had a big tip-in the other night against New Orleans late in the game. Against Conley, who’s very quick, we can throw Bled on him a little bit. Just the versatility he brings us is a value.”

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Clippers await big-time delivery from Chauncey Billups

The Clippers admit they’re taking a cautious approach with Billups but are hoping that once the playoffs begin, Mr. Big Shot will be in his usual clutch form.
“He’s a little bit older now, he missed most of last season and a lot of this season (with his Achilles’ tendon injury),” Del Negro said. “That’s not as easy to do. We still expect a lot from him, his leadership, he can make shots, he gives us another guy that can make plays.
“He’ll get Chris with more live dribbles at times, he can run the break. At the end of games, they call him Big Shot for a reason. He can make free throws. He’s another weapon we’d like to use as much as we can, as much as he can handle physically.”

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Clippers: Help wanted

The Clippers could use some help from Utah Wednesday night in Memphis, but they’re not counting on it.
“I expect Memphis at home,” Del Negro said. “I focus in on us (Tuesday) and tomorrow night. Both games we have to have our mindset right, take care of our business and everything else falls into place.”
The Clippers close the season in Sacramento.

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Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler in starting lineup for Clippers

By Phil Collin
Staff Writer

It’s scramble time for the Clippers, who can still move up to a more advantageous position for the postseason as they head into their final two games of the regular season.
It starts tonight at Staples Center against Portland (Prime Ticket, TNT), which brings an 11-game losing streak into the game. The Clippers can win twice and earn the third seed in the Western Conference playoff picture, but they at least want to earn home-court advantage for the first round in any case.
“I focus in on us tonight and tomorrow night,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Both games, we have to have our mindset right, take care of our business and everything else falls into place.”
The Clippers are coming off a road win over Memphis, which could be their first-round opponent. That gave the Clippers a 3-1 series win for the season over the Grizzlies.
“You gain confidence by winning,” Del Negro said. “We had slipped up a few times against some of the top teams in the West since the All-Star break. We lost tough on the road to Dallas, tough on the road to San Antonio but you’ve got to finish those games out. We weren’t able to do that.
The Clippers will start Chauncey Billups at guard. Billups has been inactive for each of the past eight games with a strained groin. In addition, forward Caron Butler, fighting a sore right knee, is also in the starting lineup.

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Clippers stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have meeting to get on same page

By Vincent Bonsignore

Vincent.bonsignore@dailynews.com

Twitter.com/@DailyNewsVinny

The last straw for the Clippers came in a home loss to Indiana nine days ago. April Fool’s, to be exact.

It was the Clippers third straight loss to finish a near month-long stretch in which they had muddled about no better than a .500 team.

Everything they’d built during the best regular-season in club history was on the verge of collapse. Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, any sort of momentum heading in the postseason – all of it was slipping right through their fingers.

Worse, there was speculation their best two players – Blake Griffin and Chris Paul – were at odds.

It was a crossroads, to be sure.

And Paul and Griffin both sensed it, which is why they decided to sit down and talk to each other.

The gist of the conversation being the Clippers fate rested on their shoulders, and that their actions from that point on would set the tone for the entire team.

“We talked about how we always need to be on the same page. We always need to be communicating,” Griffin said. “Even if we might not have a good offensive game we can still contribute defensively and by passing the ball and in how we talk and how we lead during timeouts. Things like that, we can always do well. We always have control over those things.”

Paul agreed.

“It definitely starts with me and Blake,” Paul said “On the offensive end and the defensive end. When me and him are on the same page everyone else has no choice but to fall in line. Me and Blake realize we have to bring the energy every night and everyone else will feed off on it.”

The Clippers have won three straight games since the meeting, their defense picking up and their offense playing smoother and at a more up tempo pace in the process.

And at the perfect time, with four games remaining and a chance to grab home-court advantage from the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.

“We said enough is enough,” Paul said. “We were tired of losing and we didn’t want to back into the playoffs and we realized we controlled that. Not the coaches, not the media not anyone else. And we decided to pick it up.”

The key being, win or lose the Clippers want it to be on their terms.

“If we lose it can never be for a lack of effort,” Griffin said. “It has to be because the other team played better than us and that has to be our focus. To play with a lot of intensity and pace.”

The Clippers have done that the last three games.

Now they hope it continues.

 

 

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Chauncey Billups out again for Clippers; vows to be back before playoffs

By Vincent Bonsignore

Vincent.Bonsignore@dailynews.com

Twitter.com/@DailyNewsVinny

No one needs to tell Chauncey Billups how important the next eight days are to the Clippers. With five games to play in that span – including Wednesday’s home game against Minnesota – and the Clippers still in a fight with Memphis and Denver in the Western Conference playoff race they’ve reached a critical stage of the regular season.

Billups knows that, and he understands the difference he can make when he’s on the floor with the Clippers.

On the other hand, the aggravated right groin strain he suffered March 27 against New Orleans still isn’t quite right, and with the Clippers eyeing a long playoff run he knows he needs to be as healthy as possible when the postseason opens in 10 days.

Which is why he reluctantly didn’t suit up against the Timberwolves Wednesday and why he still won’t pinpoint a definite return, other than to say he’ll be ready when the Clippers open their first-round playoff series.

“Oh yeah,” Billups said. “I’ll be back before then.”

But until he’s certain he won’t aggravate the injury again and jeopardize his availability for the postseason, Billups won’t push it.

“We’re just taking it day by day, testing it, pushing it,” said Billups, who missed his sixth straight game.

That said, Billups practiced Tuesday with his teammates and continues to ratchet up his activity. His groin withstood the added work load, which included light scrimmaging, and he reported no issues by Wednesday evening.

The goal now is to carry that comfort level through another workout and another day of assessment.

At that point, a return is likely.

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Hollins on the ejection

Ryan Hollins put Goran Dragic in an extended headlock and was assessed a flagrant 2 foul and the automatic ejection in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t want to discuss the incident until I speak to the NBA,” HOllins said. “I definitely didn’t have intent to hurt, and I don’t think (Dragic) did either.”

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