Luhm: Red-hot Clippers are rolling, but work remains

NBA • Despite its 16-game win streak, L.A. knows it must improve, especially on defense.
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The Clippers are the NBA's feel-good story through the first two months of the season.

They are the dog who was lost 500 miles from home but somehow finds his way back to tearful owners.

They are the kid who picked up a wallet containing $200 and turned it into the local police station, where a little old lady on Social Security claims it.

They are the new Oklahoma City Thunder.

Young. Exciting. A refreshing face in the crowd of championship contenders.

The Clippers won their 16th straight game Friday night against the Jazz.

In the NBA, such a streak is astounding. Given the X-factors every team faces — most commonly injuries and the inevitable quirks in the schedule — going undefeated for a month is an eye-opening accomplishment.

"It's just a start," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "But we know the guys have been very good in terms of watching film or practicing or preparing — picking up things that we definitely need to improve on [and] looking at the big picture.

For the long-suffering Clippers, the big picture rightfully includes comparisons with other contenders in the West — San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis. Denver, the L.A. Lakers … even Golden State.

It's also too early to anoint the Clippers as the conference's best team.

The 1-2 punch of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin gives L.A. the star power every championship team needs.

If veterans Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill ever get healthy — and if Lamar Odom starts to consistently contribute — the Clippers will be deep enough to throw two waves at opponents.

They could have championship-caliber depth, though most of it is on the perimeter.

"Having some veteran guys in the locker room who have been there before — like Lamar, like Chauncey, like Grant — really helps a lot," Del Negro said. "… But we have a long way to go. We want to just continually improve throughout the season and be our best when it counts."

I agree with Del Negro.

The Clippers must get better than they are right now if they want to survive in the Western Conference playoffs.

During their 16-game winning streak, they have played 10 home games. Through Friday night, only three of those opponents were over .500.

To their credit, the Clippers won every game — most of them by lopsided margins.

Paul has emerged as a top-three candidate in the Most Valuable Player race and Griffin has improved his shooting to the point where he's no longer just a freakish athlete. Still, the Clippers' two wins by three points over the Jazz exposed room for growth, especially on defense.

Remember: Utah has scored over 100 points four times since Thanksgiving but did it twice against L.A.

"That's the key," Del Negro said. "We're going to get to where we want to be with our defense. Create some offense with our defense. Get out in the open court. … We have to continue to build our chemistry on the defensive end."