T.J. Simers

This is a crucial week for Clippers' winning streak

With tough games ahead, including a matchup with the Lakers on Friday night, the Clippers have their work cut out for them to keep the string going.

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The Clippers' streak ends this week.

Look at the schedule.

It begins with a trap game against Utah on Sunday night, a game in Denver on Tuesday where the Nuggets are 9-1, a trap game the next night at Golden State and then a colossal collision with the Lakers on Friday night.

The Clippers survive all that, and fat chance, then they have to pick themselves up after an emotional game with the Lakers to take on Golden State the next night.

So it was fun while it lasted.

In fact, I'm thinking maybe it ends Sunday night.

Maybe the Clippers look past Utah after winning in Utah and I can stay home and catch them again Friday when they take on the Lakers.

The newspaper has another idea. If the Clippers beat Utah, it thinks it would be good if I went to Denver for the new year to follow our heroes.

It's snowing in Denver, I might get stranded, and the newspaper and the family don't seem to have any problem with that.

Sure enough, the Clippers beat Utah, and the first thing Coach Vinny Del Negro is telling me, “Pack your bags.”

And so here we go with one of the best stories in sports right now, although I'm not quite sure how many are really paying attention to this miracle in the making.

Maybe they should change the franchise's name, “Clippers” still meaning something that has nothing to do with success.

The Clippers have won 17 games in a row, have the best record in the NBA and maybe the league's most exciting team.

Smelling salts, please for Ralph Lawler.

But they are not the Lakers, and so that really seems to bother people who think the Clippers aren't worthy of such attention.

They have to win multiple championships, I hear so often, for folks to take notice.

But yowza, what a show people are missing.

Caron Butler has five three-pointers in the opening quarter and DeAndre Jordan throws down an energizing slam, a warmup for an even mightier dunk a few minutes later.

And it's just the appetizer.

When the Clippers start running, you can almost hear Mike D'Antoni's long-distance sigh of jealousy.

The Clippers have had moments in the past, and then just as quickly haved reverted to disappointment.

But this feels different.

It begins with luck, of course, a ping-pong ball bouncing the Clippers' way and putting them in position to draft Blake Griffin.

But the moment the Clippers changed, and it can be pinpointed, is not the day they traded for Chris Paul.

It's the next day when Paul arrived in town after an all-night flight to announce he was embracing the opportunity to play for the Clippers.

He spoke eloquently about what the Clippers could become while telling everyone with more confidence than arrogance that any team he plays on has a better chance to win.

But who gets excited about playing for the Clippers when they were almost a Laker?

Paul changed the Clippers' culture, and the way the team dresses. Right now he's got what looks like a horse blanket hanging out of his suit pocket, I presume because it matches his bright red socks inside his gray dress shoes.

This must be his idea of New Year's cheer or one of those ugly sweater days, only this is something much more far-fetched.

On or off the court, though, there's no question Paul stands out. He has 19 points, nine assists and five steals against Utah and a message for the rest of the NBA.

“We have the right personnel and we still don't have Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill,'' says Paul, while talking about contending for a championship.

In buying into the Clippers, others have followed Paul's lead. Griffin has already extended his contract another five years. The roster is now flooded with players who know they will touch the ball if they are hot.

“With the way we're playing so many players, Blake and Chris' minutes are down as well as their other numbers,” Del Negro says. “But if it's good enough for them, then it's going to be good for everyone else on the team.”

Everyone wanted to know how Del Negro was going to play so many good players. But as nondescript as Del Negro comes off in front of the media, he's different with his team.

He's direct, sitting with each of the new players before they signed with the Clippers and telling them what their role would be.

He's not worried about hurting anyone's feelings. But then he packs a hammer as well, veterans such as Billups, Hill and Lamar Odom reinforcing Del Negro's improved play if this season really is going to be special.

Right now the MVP chants are filling Staples Center for Paul, and the Clippers are on the verge of ending the month of December without having lost a game during the month.

They will fall behind Utah briefly, but they have the advantage of sending wave after wave of exciting scorers at the opposition. And Jordan makes five straight free throws, as if that's fair.

But the streak ends this week.

“You had us losing Game 7 last year in Memphis,” says Paul, who is not only a great passer, but also has a good memory.

And he doesn't seem to care that it's snowing in Denver.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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