PLAYA VISTA, Calif., Playing on a first-place team with a couple of all-stars and a roster full of veterans isnt something the Clippers are used to. When they take their show on the road these days, they know opponents are keenly focused on beating them.
So they dont expect to have the easiest road swing when they start their annual Grammy trip Wednesday night in Minnesota. They play eight games in 13 nights, and although only two are against teams with winning records, no one is thinking this is going to be easy.
The Clippers arent expected to have either of their two injured guards, Chris Paul or Chauncey Billups, back for the beginning of the trip, although Billups took part in some contract drills during practice Tuesday and might get clearance from trainer Jasen Powell to return. But thats still to be determined.
Its going to be a tough stretch, especially still missing Chris and Chauncey, forward Blake Griffin said. Weve shown were capable of doing it, but we have to come out and have that intensity that started in practice today.
Paul has missed seven of the Clippers past nine games because of a bruised right kneecap, although the team is 4-3 during his absence. Billups, who has missed all but three games because of a delayed start resulting from a torn Achilles and then tendinitis in his left good, might get an OK as soon as this week.
Coach Vinny Del Negro, asked about the possibility of Billups returning Wednesday, said, Theres a chance, but I dont expect that. Ill talk to Jasen and talk to Chauncey, but weve got to give him some time to get some practice in and see how he responds.
That wasnt the plan before practice; I dont expect it to be the plan now, but I need to get more information from my trainer before we make those decisions.
The Clippers know their newfound success makes them a target when theyre on the road, although it has also won them some fans. In the past, it was rare to see someone wearing a Clippers T-shirt or jersey on the road. Now, its almost commonplace.
We have a larger fan base on the road, which is cool, Griffin said. With all this, it kind of brings a bulls eye on our back. Its just like when we play at home and the Celtics come to town, you see a lot of Celtics jerseys. We dont like that. We take that to heart. Im sure other teams are doing the same thing. Theyre used to not seeing a single Clippers jersey in the stands and now theres four or five. It makes a difference.
The Clippers currently have one of the best road records in the league at 13-8. They have every reason to believe they can improve on that mark because only two of their opponents on the trip the Miami Heat and New York Knicks currently have winning records. The Boston Celtics would join the Heat and Knicks as Eastern Conference playoff teams, but theyre two games under .500 and lost point guard Rajon Rondo last weekend because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The key to playing well, Griffin said, is to really try to come out and make an impact in the first quarter. You cant necessarily win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose a game in the first quarter. You dont want to get too far behind and let the crowd get into it. If you can get in early and keep the crowd at bay a little bit and steadily go from there, it helps a lot. Really, its about making a good first impact.
The Clippers gave themselves some momentum Sunday night when they defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 96-83, at Staples Center, ending a four-game losing streak that matched their longest of the season.
Their chances for a successful trip will surely improve if Paul or Billups return, but thats something that wont be determined until the day of the game. After playing the Timberwolves on Wednesday, they face Toronto on Friday before a back-to-back series against the Celtics and Washington Wizards beginning Sunday.
It was good to have Chauncey out there today, Del Negro said. He makes a difference when hes out there just with his leadership. He seemed pretty good so well see how he responds.