By MATT BEARDMORE
(AP) -- Blake Griffin has delivered many exciting dunks this season.
The Los Angeles Clippers are not thrilled about how they've made the All-Star forward a target for some opponents.
One of them was New Orleans Hornets big man Jason Smith.
Griffin takes on Smith again as the playoff-bound Clippers continue their push for the Pacific Division title Sunday night in Los Angeles, where they could face former teammate Eric Gordon for the first time since the Chris Paul trade.
While Griffin has been instrumental to the team's success, the Clippers (39-24) likely need him to stay healthy if they're going to make any noise in their first playoff appearance since 2006.
Los Angeles is fearful that opponents are getting more physical with their star forward in order to stay off his slam-dunk highlight reel.
A night after Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins hit him in the face - possibly retribution for Griffin dunking over him in the teams' previous meeting - the Clippers forward was sent flying to the floor by Smith on March 22. The Hornets center delivered a body check with 4:06 left in the 97-90 home win over the Clippers, getting assessed a flagrant foul 2 and later a two-game suspension.
It's uncertain if the league will deliver a similar punishment to Phoenix center Robin Lopez after he sent Griffin to the floor with a flagrant foul in the fourth quarter of Thursday's 93-90 victory over Los Angeles.
The Clippers are tired of watching one of their franchise players taking such big hits.
"The league has got to do something to protect this kid," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "... The kid is in pain right now."
Griffin said afterward that his neck was sore, but there has been no word if he will be available Sunday when the Clippers close their home schedule. He's averaged 15.0 points in three games this week - more than five below his season mark - and has totaled six second-half points over the last two.
The Clippers, winners of 13 of 16, are one-half game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the Pacific lead and the third seed in the Western Conference. The Clippers have a game in hand on the Lakers, who host Oklahoma City on Sunday, but lost the season series tiebreaker.
The Hornets (20-43) have long been out of the playoff picture, but they've won seven of 10 to pull into a tie with Sacramento for the worst record in the West.
"A lot of people expected us to tank, but you've got to play for the fans and give them something to look forward to next year," Gordon said Thursday after scoring 27 points in the Hornets' home finale - a 105-99 overtime victory over Houston.
Gordon may finally get his first crack at the Clippers after missing the previous two meetings - including a 97-85 road loss March 26 - but it's uncertain if coach Monty Williams will make him available. He's played just eight games this season following arthroscopic right knee surgery.
Griffin and Paul lead Los Angeles with 41 points apiece against the Hornets this season.
Paul has posted double-doubles in four straight home games and nine of 10.
The Clippers have won 10 of 11 at Staples Center - the only loss came to the Lakers - and they've won two straight at home in this series after losing the previous seven times the Hornets were in town.
Updated April 21, 2012