Clippers learn in 1st winning season in 6 years
By BETH HARRIS
LOS ANGELES (AP) The Los Angeles Clippers were swept out of the playoffs, ending a season to remember and build on for the much-maligned franchise.
At 40-26, they had their first winning record since 2005-06, also the last time the team made the playoffs. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the way, the Clippers were exciting to watch as they led the Pacific Division for much of the season. Fans came out in droves, leading to a string of sellouts at Staples Center dating to February 2011, and making the team a popular draw away from home.
"It was the start of something very good here," second-year coach Vinny Del Negro said.
Against Memphis in the first round, the Clippers showed no quit and won their first Game 7 on the road to advance to the second round. San Antonio's experience and depth proved too much to overcome in a 4-0 series sweep, although the Clippers went down fighting when they might have previously folded with Paul, Griffin and Caron Butler limited by injuries.
"This is just going to make us hungrier," said Paul, who had 23 points and 11 assists but twice missed shots that would have tied the game in the closing seconds on Sunday night. "We got work to do. We're going to come back next season ready to go."
Paul's presence boosted the Clippers' credibility following his arrival a couple weeks before the lockout-shortened season began in December after the Lakers made an ill-fated run at acquiring the five-time All-Star. He helped them to the best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history, and just their second playoff series win since 1976 when they beat Memphis.
Not to mention his influence in changing the culture of the team and its perception in Los Angeles, where the Lakers have long ruled because of their tradition and championships.
"We're not in the second round of the playoffs without Chris Paul," Del Negro said. "I can't say enough about how much he's brought to the team, organization and the city."
Chauncey Billups arrived just before Paul, giving the Clippers two veteran guards with shot-making and play-making abilities.
Billups went down with a torn left Achilles' tendon in early February. But he stuck around on the bench, providing guidance and a steadying influence on the younger Clippers, many of whom had never before been in the playoffs. The front office brought in veteran Kenyon Martin on a one-year deal, and he was part of a stellar supporting cast that outscored Memphis and San Antonio's reserves in the playoffs.
"Losing Chauncey was a difficult blow that put a lot of pressure on Chris and Blake for sure," Del Negro said.
Paul and Griffin gave the Clippers their first two starters in the All-Star game since 1976. Griffin can sign a five-year contract extension worth up to $95 million this summer.
"I haven't given it one ounce of thought," he said. "I'll get to that when it comes."
Both Paul and Griffin were banged up throughout the playoffs, and Butler played with a broken hand. Paul played with a strained right hip, while Griffin had a sprained right knee, an injured left hip and got stitches for a cut lip on Sunday night. Griffin credited Paul with helping him improve in his second full season.
"From day one, it's been great," Griffin said. "Not only from the way he plays on the court. It's when he comes and talks to you about a certain situation, you learn through his eyes. I learned a lot from him this season."
Griffin plans to spend the offseason expanding his game beyond dunking, working on improving his shooting and free throws, which were a liability for the entire team.
"I need to improve in a lot of areas," he said.
As a team, the Clippers figure to make offseason moves, adding the kind of shooters around Paul that he had when he played for New Orleans.
"That will help ease the strain," Del Negro said.
Updated May 21, 2012