With Chauncey Billups in the lineup, the Los Angeles Clippers were well on their way to their first postseason berth in six years.
That's far from a sure thing now, as a slump since Billups' injury last month has the Clippers fighting to stay in the Western Conference playoff picture - and answering questions about Coach Vinny Del Negro's job security.
Back from a winless trip, Los Angeles will try to end a season-high three-game losing streak in Saturday's matinee against a Memphis Grizzlies team that's also hit a rough patch.
The Clippers' new backcourt of Billups and Chris Paul helped them jump out to a 15-7 start and grab a 2 1/2-game lead atop the Pacific Division. However, since Billups' season-ending left Achilles' injury at Orlando on Feb. 6, Los Angeles (26-21) has lost 14 of 25, not once winning more than two in a row.
The Clippers are back home for the next five games after losing for the third time in three nights Thursday, 97-90 to lowly New Orleans.
Los Angeles is still very much in the playoff race, but the Clippers are also closer to the ninth spot in the West than the division-leading Lakers.
"There's frustration, there's no question,'' said Del Negro, whose team hasn't lost four in a row since a five-game skid Feb. 22-28, 2011. "But, hey, you've got come ready to play every night and you can't take plays off.''
There have been recent reports that Del Negro has lost the team with his inconsistent rotation and his refusal to criticize Paul and fellow superstar Blake Griffin, but Griffin is trying to deflect some of the heat aimed at his coach.
"We're still behind (Del Negro)," Griffin said Thursday after scoring 21 points with 11 rebounds - his 29th double-double. "It's not him. It's on us. It's on me. I have to find a way."
So do the Grizzlies (25-20), who are winless on the first half of their four-game trip and have dropped five of seven since a 9-1 surge.
Memphis was hoping to get a boost with former Clipper Zach Randolph back in the lineup following his 37-game absence with an MCL injury, but the team has lost three of four since he's returned.
While coach Lionel Hollins has had some difficulty finding a rotation that works with Randolph back, a bigger concern has to be the team's poor defense. The Grizzlies are giving up 107.6 points per game in the last five - two of which went to overtime - after not yielding 100 in the previous eight contests.
"We are over-gambling," said Mike Conley, who finished with 13 points and four assists in Thursday's 97-93 loss to Portland. "I think too many guys are starting to gamble now, because it's been mentioned that we are a team that gets steals (a league-best 10.1 per game) and we go out there and create turnovers. I think we have to start playing more solid, including myself."
The Grizzlies could use a better effort from Conley than in a 98-91 road loss to the Clippers on Jan. 26, when he handed out seven assists and finished with just four points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Paul had 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in that game, while Griffin added 20 points, nine boards and eight assists.
The Clippers have won three in a row overall against the Grizzlies and nine of 12 at home in this series.