Matt Barnes jogged out of the visiting locker room and headed toward the Target Center court, where the hometown Minnesota Timberwolves awaited.
As he navigated the back hallways of the arena, he walked past a VIP section for fans and couldn't help but notice something that he's seeing more and more when his team hits the road these days. Dozens and dozens of fans in a city 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles were wearing Clippers jerseys.
"In my rookie year we were terrible and there was no one at our games, and when you're on the road there definitely weren't Clipper fans," said Barnes, who broke into the league with the Clippers in 2003. "So to see the support in every arena we go to really, no matter if it's Miami, San Antonio wherever we go, there's Clipper fans."
With Doc Rivers giving the team a top-notch coach, Chris Paul instilling a nasty edge to a glitzy team and Blake Griffin making the leap from a high-flying highlight machine to a multi-faceted force of nature, the Clippers have won 16 of their past 18 games to pull within two games of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second seed in the Western Conference.
They are steamrolling toward their third straight playoff appearance, the first time the franchise has done that since it was in Buffalo in the mid-1970s. After the Braves made their final postseason appearance in 1976, the franchise embarked on a vagabond 30 years, moving from Buffalo to San Diego (where they became the Clippers) and then finally to Los Angeles in 1984.
They made just three playoff appearances in 29 years, becoming a league-wide punch line and second-class citizens in their own arena, where the Lakers ran the show. But things started to turn when Paul arrived in 2011 and helped the Clippers to the Western Conference semifinals. They lost in the first round last season, which cost coach Vinny Del Negro his job.
Rivers has brought a championship pedigree, an ability to get his message across to his players and a focus on the defensive end that has empowered DeAndre Jordan to the best season of his career. They lead the league in scoring, are second in point differential and boast one of the deepest benches in the league.
"I think we're playing some of our best basketball at this time," said Griffin, who has been bothered by a back injury this week. "Still you know, we haven't been healthy, we haven't really had our full starting lineup so that hurts. But at the same time, it's encouraging how we're playing and that everybody seems to be completely bought in and we're hitting on all cylinders."
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