Clippers soar to top of Pacific Division

Posted Feb. 03, 2012, at 8:41 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — The bad old days are becoming a distant memory for the high-flying Los Angeles Clippers. They lead the Pacific Division, have landed Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as starters on the All-Star team and in the process have stolen, at least for the moment, the spotlight from the Lakers.

“It’s a new beginning around here,” Chauncey Billups said about a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2005-06, also the last time the Clippers made the playoffs. They are 13-7 going into Saturday’s game at Washington, good for third in the Western Conference standings and ahead of the Lakers.

They’ve knocked off some of the league’s best, including Miami, the Lakers, and defending NBA champion Dallas. Since last Sunday, they have won at Denver and beat West-leading Oklahoma City on back-to-back nights then followed up with their first win in Utah since 2003.

“We got better this week,” Billups said, the notable exception being a 112-91 loss to the Nuggets on Thursday in their fourth game in five nights.

Suddenly, it’s hip to be a Clip.

Kenyon Martin became the newest addition Friday when the veteran free-agent forward agreed to a one-year deal. Paul, of course, was the biggest get, arriving 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. Billups signed on just before Paul, giving the Clippers two veteran guards who can shoot and make plays.

Denver coach George Karl wonders why anyone is surprised by the Clippers’ early success.

“Griffin, everybody knew he was going to be special, it was just when. His improvement was expedited by Chris Paul being there. Then they get Chauncey,” Karl said.

“They’ve become a team that was wobbly in close games last year to a team that now I kind of like Chris Paul and Chauncey as their closers as much as I like Kobe (Bryant) as the Laker closer. Chris Paul can make those other guys be pretty damn good, plus he’s a big-shot guy, too.”

Fans voted Paul and Griffin in as starters in the All-Star game, giving the franchise its first two players on the team since 1976, when the team was known as the Buffalo Braves and Randy Smith and Bob McAdoo were in the starting lineup. No Clipper has started in the game since World B. Free in 1980, when the franchise had relocated to San Diego. Griffin was a reserve last season as a rookie, when he won the dunk contest by leaping over a car on his home court.

Griffin is leading the league in dunks while averaging 21.4 points and 10.9 rebounds. His monstrous one-handed jam over Kendrick Perkins on Monday was a video and Twitter sensation.

“That’s why this arena is sold out, to see things like that. I’m seeing stuff this year that I didn’t see last year from him,” Mo Williams said. “He’s continued to get better. Give him time.”

Both Griffin and Paul (18.9 points and 9.1 assists) are averaging 53 percent from the field; Griffin is shooting 50 percent from 3-point range to Paul’s 47 percent.

Their supporting cast has been good, too. Caron Butler and Billups are both averaging 14.9 points, while DeAndre Jordan averages 8.1 points and 9.0 rebounds. Williams, relegated to backup point guard with the arrival of Paul and Billups, averages 14.7 points off the bench.

“We’re finding ways to grind games out. We’re getting a pretty consistent balanced attack from a lot of guys. Everyone’s getting a little bit more comfortable, getting a little bit better rhythm,” second-year coach Vinny Del Negro said. “The more the guys are together, they build trust with each other. I build trust in them and they build trust in me. We’re all focused and smart enough to know we’re definitely not even close to being a finished product. We have a lot of room for improvement.”

The excitement during games at Staples Center is palpable, with Griffin scaling the heights for rim-rattling dunks fed by Paul’s flashy passing.

Comic Billy Crystal, a two-decade season ticket holder, has returned to his courtside seat, and Rihanna turns heads when she turns up. The Clippers have sold out 25 consecutive games dating to last season.

“People talk about how exciting we are to watch, of course, with all the young guys running around, flying around,” Billups said. “But not only that, they know that we come to win. We don’t come just to get on ‘SportsCenter,’ we come to win. That’s something that we believe in.”

The Clippers’ rise has coincided with a lull for the Lakers, sixth in the West going into Friday’s game at Denver. The team with all the NBA championship banners hanging in the rafters at Staples is adjusting to new coach Mike Brown and a revamped roster. The Clippers and Lakers split their first two meetings after the Clippers twice beat them in two preseason games.

“We don’t get caught up in the hoopla about Lakers and Clippers,” Williams said. “We got a lot of years to make up for that.”

The Clippers’ six-game Grammy road trip beginning Saturday includes visits to Orlando, Philadelphia and Dallas. They’re 3-4 away from home.

“Win them all,” Griffin said. “That’s our goal and it’s possible.”

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