LOS ANGELES — Having wrapped up December with just the third 16-0 month in NBA history, the Los Angeles Clippers face tough challenges starting the new year.
They’ll play four games this week, with two opponents having winning records and the other at .500. The Clippers take their franchise-record 17-game winning streak into Denver on Tuesday, where the Nuggets are 9-1 at home.
“It’ll be a big test for us,” Blake Griffin said.
Denver is the first game of a back-to-back, with a visit to Golden State on Wednesday. The Warriors handed the Clippers their first loss of the season on Nov. 3. The Clippers return home on Friday to host the Lakers, a team they’ve already beaten once and who are back to .500. Then comes the second game of another back-to-back against the Warriors.
“We’re going to lose at some point, but this is a magical run,” said Caron Butler, who had 29 points in a 107-96 victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday that maintained the league’s best record at 25-6.
The Clippers haven’t lost since Nov. 26.
“I want to do this every year,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “This has got to be a staple of how we go about doing our business. We’re thinking bigger than the streak.”
They have proven they can win on successive nights during the streak, having done so on Dec. 8 against Phoenix and the next night against Toronto, then again on Dec. 11 at Chicago and the following night in Milwaukee.
“We’re just trying to build as many wins as possible,” Chris Paul said. “Last week was a tough week (wins over Denver, Boston and Utah twice). We don’t look past anybody.”
The Clippers went 16-0 in December to join the 1995-96 San Antonio Spurs, which included Del Negro, and 1971-72 Lakers as the only teams to go undefeated in a month. Their franchise-record winning streak is the longest since Boston won 19 in a row four years ago.
“I am amazed because I haven’t done it since I’ve been in the league,” said Paul, a seven-year veteran who had 19 points and nine assists against Utah.
The Clippers kept their streak alive despite Griffin scoring just seven points due to foul trouble. Their bench came through again, with Jamal Crawford scoring 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter.
Butler sat in the fourth quarter after playing “out of his mind” as Griffin put it in the opening quarter, when the veteran scored 17 points and hit five of his six 3-pointers.
“It’s a tribute to everybody in here,” Griffin said. “Everybody has been a huge part one night or the other. It’s a selfless attitude the team has taken on. This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball.”
Against the Jazz, Crawford keyed a 10-5 run to open the fourth, highlighted by a 3-pointer and a fast break pull-up jumper that helped the Clippers extend their lead to 89-81. Paul and Griffin didn’t join the second unit until 5:55 remained and Utah had closed within four on a basket by Derrick Favors.
That was as close as the Jazz got. The Clippers made 9 of 10 free throws down the stretch and their defense held Utah to one field goal in the final 3:38.
The Clippers have been winning without injured veterans Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill.
“We really haven’t had an opportunity to see what it looks like,” Paul said of the entire team.
Still, they’ve won 11 of their 17 games by 12 points or more, and their defense has allowed 100 points just three times during the streak. They’ve been winning so handily that Paul and Griffin rarely have to play in the fourth quarter. Both are averaging career low minutes in the final period this season.
“We expect to win every time we step out on the court,” Butler said. “We have a good mixture of young guys and veterans, and we do a good job of policing ourselves. Coach lets us control the environment. We do a great job being unselfish on and off the court.”
After putting away the Jazz, Butler headed out to join his teammates at a dinner organized by Ryan Hollins. And no, the streak wasn’t going to be part of the conversation.
“It’s something that kind of keeps happening,” Griffin said. “It’s not something we talk about.”