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Clippers still streaking for now, but best is yet to come

LOS ANGELES -- The 2007-08 Houston Rockets have become something of a cautionary tale in the NBA, a middling team that stood at 24-20 on Jan. 27, before they jumped into a kerosene bath. The searing Rockets embarked on a 22-game winning streak, an unforgettable ride that lasted until mid-March, when the Celtics came to town and thrashed them by 20. For a while, it seemed the Rockets would never lose, but they dropped seven games in the final month and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Jazz.

Chris Paul has reason to remember that year. It was the best of his career, as he coaxed the Hornets to 56 victories, one more than the Rockets. The Hornets were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, beat the Mavericks in the first round, and fell in seven games to the Spurs in the conference semifinals. Paul has been trying to return to that place ever since.

He can get there, and beyond, with the Clippers. Paul is harping on his teammates to remember Houston and maintain perspective amid their surge, which reached 15 games with a 106-77 blowout of the spoiler Celtics on Thursday at Staples Center. But these Clippers are not those Rockets. They are younger, deeper and more balanced. Their streak is not an anomaly. It is an emblem of what they have become: a franchise that sells out 67 straight games, attracts desirable free agents for minimum contracts, and posts the best record in the NBA. Never before have the Clippers held the top record this late in a season, another detail they try to downplay.

"I totally forgot about the streak today," Paul said. "I just love how we're playing. Some people may be impressed with the record, but we can't be impressed because you're not measured by regular season wins. It's going to be a long time until we see what this team is made of."

So goes the Clippers mantra, that the surge is part of the process, not the product of it. "We're locked in the moment," said guard Jamal Crawford. "We're not like, 'We've got to win No. 15.' We don't look at it at all. We feel we're a special team and now people are starting to realize it." If not for their troubled history, the Clippers might be taken seriously as championship contenders, but history is a superficial reason to dismiss them. "Culture changes by winning and playing the right way," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. "This is a new time for this organization and team."

Early Thursday night, Del Negro rattled off some of his team's shortcomings, like closing out on 3-point shooters and making decisions in transition. He was reaching. A year ago, the Clippers were a 48-minute highlight reel, capable of the spectacular and the sloppy. They still deliver plenty of footage, but along the way, they've also turned into an instructional video. Come for the ally oops, stay for the crisp rotations and extra passes.

The Clippers are an intriguing mix of players in their prime (Paul and Crawford), in their infancy (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe) and in their twilight (Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups). The roster includes 10 regulars who'd probably be getting more minutes and shots elsewhere, but the team still ranks second in assists (up from 13th last season) and second in opposing field-goal percentage (up from 14th last season), categories that typically gauge selflessness and effort. "It's hard to sell that many guys on, 'You won't play every night, you won't get a lot of minutes, you won't take a lot of shots,' and everybody is good with that," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "When you do it, you have a chance to be special."

Rivers watched the Clippers get swept by the Spurs in the West semis last season and saw a crew of independent contractors, pounding the ball on offense and freelancing on defense. "I thought it brought them together," Rivers said. "They're so much more disciplined now." After general manager Neil Olshey left in June for Portland, some around the NBA joked that Paul acted as interim GM, and he did an admirable job with acquisitions of Crawford, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf. Hill has yet to play, but Odom has begun to contribute, pulling down 13 rebounds Thursday. "They added character," Rivers said.

The Clippers have not lost in more than a month, when they fell to New Orleans and fumed that the young Hornets were overzealous with their celebration. But the number of wins is not as startling as the nature of them. The Clippers have beaten opponents by more than 15 points per game. Their starters have spent fourth quarters on the bench. Magic Johnson has compared them with the Showtime Lakers. On Thursday, a national television audience witnessed what has become a typical tableau at Staples Center, Clippers stars jumping around the sideline after dunks and three-pointers like kindergartners hopped up on candy.

"It's a really good vibe," Paul said. "I've probably sat out more fourth quarters than I did in the previous seven seasons."

Given the schedule, the streak will probably end soon, and Los Angeles will return to its civic preoccupation with the Lakers. The Clippers play in Utah on Friday before another treacherous back-to-back next week at Golden State and Denver. Paul doesn't need to worry about his team mimicking the '07-'08 Rockets. Their run likely won't last as long, but their season figures to extend much further.

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