The Clippers have lost five of their last seven games, and their once-stout defense has allowed an average of 120.6 points during that stretch — most in the NBA and a full four points more than 29th-ranked New Orleans has given up since Jan. 19.
They suffered another beatdown at the hands of Golden State on Thursday night, their ninth straight loss to their Northern California rivals, fueling more doubt that the Clippers can compete with the Warriors for a championship.
And with every game they play without point guard Chris Paul, who tore a left-thumb ligament on Jan. 16, it seems more apparent the Clippers can’t hang with the NBA’s elite without their creative playmaker and defensive whiz.
Is this any way to launch a five-game trip that opens against Eastern Conference powers Boston on Sunday and Toronto on Monday, and ends with a Feb. 13 game at Utah, which is in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture?
“If we don’t get better as a team, it’s going to be an early exit [from the playoffs] for us, like it has been the past few years,” center DeAndre Jordan said. “We’ve got to change something. We’ve got to get better, because this is not doing it.”
A healthy Paul would be a good start — the veteran is expected back around mid-March — but it still might not be enough for the Clippers to beat Golden State.
The Warriors played Thursday without starting forward Draymond Green and center Zaza Pachulia, and they were still able to take the Clippers out of the game in the first minute and a half, when the Clippers turned the ball over on their first four possessions.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry pickpocketed J.J. Redick to open the game, and Golden State’s Kevin Durant dunked on the other end. Curry left his man (Raymond Felton) for a sneak attack on Blake Griffin in the low post, ripped the ball out of Griffin’s hands, and JaVale McGee tipped in a basket on the other end.
Austin Rivers lost control of his dribble, Patrick McCaw stole the ball, and Durant made two free throws for a 6-0 lead. Rivers turned the ball over again on the Clippers’ next possession, but Golden State gave it right back.
An early six-point deficit is hardly insurmountable, but the opening blitz set the tone for a game in which the Warriors — once again — imposed their will on the Clippers and strengthened their psychological edge over them.
Golden State built a 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter and withstood a late Clippers run that cut the lead to seven with 1:55 left. Durant and Klay Thompson made clutch three-pointers to help the Warriors pull away.
“Listen, it’s my job to get our guys ready, but I thought [the Warriors] came out far more into the game or ready to play,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they attacked us. … I was disappointed in our preparation, on both sides. Obviously I could have done something better, too.”
Rivers said a lack of weak-side help has been the biggest issue on defense. Golden State grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, many of them long caroms after missed three-pointers, and got too many open looks at the basket.
The Warriors’ ball movement (they had 38 assists) wore down the Clippers in the second half, and their head fakes on the perimeter as defenders flew by opened up driving lanes all night.
“When you have a guy out like Chris [Paul], you don’t have a margin for error,” Rivers said. “Right now, we’re allowing teams to score too many points.”
On the plus side, Griffin is averaging 23.0 points and 7.8 rebounds in his first four games back from right-knee surgery, including a season-high 31 points Thursday.
If there was any doubt Griffin wouldn’t regain his explosiveness after the Dec. 20 procedure that sidelined him for a month, they were erased with his authoritative dunk before halftime.
Griffin took a pick-and-roll pass from Redick near the left elbow, burst toward the basket and soared over Kevon Looney for a right-handed, tomahawk slam, placing his left hand on Looney’s head as he jumped over the Golden State forward.
“I loved how he played, I loved his pace and how he attacked the basket,” Rivers said of Griffin. “So that part was good. You find something positive from the game, and that was the only thing.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna