No one in the Los Angeles Clippers locker room has more experience than 39-year-old Paul Pierce, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics and was named NBA Finals MVP in 2008, and made another Finals appearance in 2010, before moving on to Brooklyn and Washington and delivering more playoff heroics as a veteran scorer off the bench. In his second season in Los Angeles and the final year of his illustrious career, Pierce is averaging 3.7 points and has played in only 13 games, but he's been on enough championship contenders to properly assess this Clippers team that has fallen short of its own title aspirations.
"If we're healthy, with what we've got, we have all the pieces for a championship run," Pierce said earlier this month.
The Clippers have run into some bad luck since last year's playoffs. A 14-2 start created optimism again that this could be the year the Clips make a deep playoff run, but then Griffin missed 18 games with a knee injury. And not long after Griffin returned, the team lost Paul for six to eight weeks due to a torn ligament in his left thumb.
But the Clippers are still 35-21, in fourth place in the West -- not a bad place to be at all. In previous seasons, seeding has been important for this team. In 2014, they beat the Warriors at the Staples Center in a deciding Game 7 in the first round. A year later, the Clippers beat the Spurs at home in Game 7. "You'd love to have home-court advantage," Griffin said. "But we feel like we match up with everybody. When we're healthy, I like our odds."
"Seeding was important, until we got [the injuries]. Now seeding is not important anymore," Doc Rivers said, laughing. "We wanted the one or two [seed], that was one of our goals. But when the injuries happened to Blake and Chris, I threw that out. Now it's about being ready for the playoffs."
There have been encouraging signs for the Clippers, with Griffin looking his best in two seasons, averaging 23.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the 10 games since his return from injury. Before Paul's injury, he was averaging 17.5 points, 9.7 assists and 2.2 steals. If there's a silver lining here, perhaps it's that the extended period of time missed by Paul and Griffin might keep them fresh for the postseason.
The Clippers have repeatedly used the same rhetoric for years now: Get in the playoffs and they like their chances. But they've repeatedly fell short, and now the window for contending with this team is nearing its end.
Paul and Griffin have player options this summer and are likely to decline them in order to test the open market for long-term deals. J.J. Redick, who is averaging 15.1 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three, will also be a free agent. "The urgency is definitely there more this year than it has been," Pierce said.
While getting to the playoffs is not a major concern for these Clippers, they also understand the task of having to get past the Warriors, which has become an increasingly difficult mental hurdle for this team. Since beating Golden State in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, the Clippers have lost 10 of their last 11 regular-season meetings against the Warriors, including their past nine and all three matchups this season. The two teams will face off again on Thursday, and though the Clippers will be shorthanded without Paul, they're in need of an encouraging performance against a team that has dominated them for almost three seasons running. "We know we have to go through the Warriors," Pierce said. "We look at them as a benchmark."
The mounting losses against Golden State and the team's early playoff exits have raised questions about the Clippers' ability to remain mentally tough in big games.
"I think we've been inconsistent with our toughness," Pierce said. "But I know it's there. I've seen it. It's about being consistent with it."
Time is running out to find that consistence, though. For years, this team has talked about being patient and liking their chances, but with 26 games left in the season, and their two best players hitting free agency this summer, fair or not, this appears to be the final chance for this core group to prove they can make a deep playoff run.
The road past the second round won't be easy. If the Clippers remain as the fourth seed, they're looking at a second-round matchup with the Warriors. Even if they can move into the second or third seed, they'll have to likely get past either San Antonio or Houston to get to the Western Conference Finals. The Clippers have been a really good team for a very long time, but have simply not been the best during that period, and have also dealt with crippling injuries at inopportune times. Those are not excuses for a team that views itself as a championship contender; it just illustrates the harsh reality of this league, where certain teams never break through with their own championship run.
Earlier this month, in Toronto after a third consecutive loss, the Clippers continued their positive tone: "We have plenty of games left," Austin Rivers said. "We're a really good team. We believe we can still do something special." The Clippers started this season 14-2 with a healthy lineup. Per NBA.com, when their five starters (Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute) have been on the floor together, they've outscored opponents by 16.2 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Warriors, as a team, lead the league in net rating, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions.
So, the belief that the Clippers simply need to get healthy holds some merit, but they appear to have just one more postseason to prove they're indeed capable of getting past the second round.
"I swear to everybody the sky is not falling," Rivers told reporters after the loss in Toronto. "I know it's going to get better. It's just going to take time."
Time is running out to validate the Clippers' internal belief that this is indeed a championship contender.