While struggling to close out games recently, the Los Angeles Clippers have watched their lead in the Pacific Division shrink.Visiting the team at the bottom of the division might not help.The Clippers will try to get a six-game road trip off to a good start Thursday night when they begin their season series with the Sacramento Kings, who have played well at home lately.Los Angeles suffered its third loss in four games Tuesday, 109-97 to Minnesota.
The Clippers led by seven late in the third quarter but faded, unable to keep up with the Timberwolves depth. Minnesota, which opened the fourth quarter on a 17-6 run, received 72 bench points compared to 11 for Los Angeles.Blake Griffin had 18 points and five rebounds in the first quarter before finishing with 30 points - one in the fourth - and seven boards. Chris Paul had 27 points, his average during the Clippers' 1-3 slump.Caron Butler was 1 of 10 from the field for two points and is averaging 7.0 on 29.8 percent shooting over the last five games.Trying to fend off the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific, the Clippers (20-12) look to end their late-game struggles. They were held to nine points through the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter Tuesday, went scoreless in the final three minutes of a 104-97 defeat to Golden State on Feb. 20 and blew a 13-point lead in a loss to San Antonio two nights earlier."That's something we've got to learn, how to put teams away," Paul said.Los Angeles allowed at least 103 points in each of those three defeats - about seven above its average - and now faces a Kings team which has scored more than 100 in a season-high three straight games.The Clippers have lost seven of eight and 23 of 26 in Sacramento, where they'll play the first of six road games in nine nights."We'll see what we're made of now," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We have a tough road trip coming up. We're going to have to play on a higher level, especially on the road now, but maybe that will help us come together more."Los Angeles may not enjoy playing in Sacramento, but it's looking like the Kings won't be leaving in the near future. On Monday, the Kings and the NBA announced a tentative deal to keep the team in Sacramento, quieting rumors about a potential move.The Kings are in last place in the Pacific but have won four of five at Arco Arena, including a victory over West-leading Oklahoma City, and are 7-3 there since the calendar flipped to 2012.Now they'll try to match a season high with a third straight win overall."All I want to do is keep this team in close games because in close games anything can happen," coach Keith Smart said.Sacramento (12-22) had dropped six straight before winning at Washington last Wednesday, then came out of the All-Star break with a 103-96 victory over Utah on Tuesday.DeMarcus Cousins had 22 points and 18 rebounds, including eight offensive boards. He's averaged 19.9 points and 12.8 rebounds in his last 12 games."I think as he grows as a pro there's going to be a lot of nights where people won't have an answer for him," Smart said.Cousins, though, averaged 7.8 points on 30.0 percent shooting in four matchups with the Clippers last season.