OAKLAND, Calif. -- Two teams at the opposite ends of the Western Conference playoff race square off to begin the NBA's second half Thursday night when the Los Angeles Clippers visit the Golden State Warriors.
Surprisingly, it is the Clippers who will tip off the game with the better recent form of the two.
The last time they visited Oakland, on Jan. 10, the Clippers were 18-21 and floundering in the West, already a full 14 games behind the Warriors in the Pacific Division.
But the Clippers stunned the defending champs 125-106 that night, triggering a 12-5 sprint to the All-Star break.
They're still 13 games behind the Warriors in the Pacific, but the recent run -- the third-best in the NBA behind Houston (16-2) and Utah (14-4) -- has vaulted them back into the thick of things in the Western playoff chase.
The Clippers (30-26) will take the court Thursday in ninth place in the West and currently out of a playoff position, but they are tied in the loss column with the four teams immediately ahead of them -- Oklahoma City (33-26), Denver (32-26), Portland (32-26) and New Orleans (31-26) -- and just two losses behind the current No. 3-seed (San Antonio, 35-24).
"I think a lot of people slept on us when we got all these players," point guard Austin Rivers said of the trade. "But I think we're getting better and better."
Danilo Gallinari has poured in an average of 20.1 points in seven games since returning from a partially torn glute.
And Rivers has chipped in with 13.3 points per game since rehabbing an ankle injury.
Mix in the consistently high-level play of DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, who had 50 points in that Jan. 10 meeting with the Warriors, and the Clippers will return to Oakland with an attack far beefier than the one that put up 125 points in their last visit.
Like the Clippers, the Warriors return from the break within arm's length of where they want to be -- atop the Western standings. Their 11-6 record since Jan. 10, a game worse than the Clippers, has caused them to drop below the surging Rockets in the race for the NBA's best record.
Golden State (44-14) will enter play Thursday a half-game behind Houston (44-13), with the Rockets already having clinched a potential tie-breaker by virtue of a 2-1 win in the season series.
The Warriors' biggest problem of late -- first quarters. The team with the league's third-best net points per game (plus-8.1) has trailed after the first quarter in 17 of its last 30 games, and has fallen behind by at least 10 points a whopping 23 times this season.
The Warriors have rallied to win 13 of those latter 23 games, but that's missing the point, guard Stephen Curry said.
"We obviously need to fix the first quarters," he observed. "It's a consistent theme."
The problem was getting progressively worse just before the break. The Warriors were outscored by an average of 34-26 in the first quarter in a four-game homestand against Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix, then got boat-raced 40-27 in the opening period of their 123-117 loss at Portland in their final game before the break.