If you wanted a game to demonstrate how this young Clippers team has grown and improved this season, to put the team to the test, to prove that they can overcome their worse habits and tendencies, you could not have asked for a better one than this. Having seen the team give up so many second half leads this season, it's likely that no citizen of Clips Nation felt particularly cozy when the Clippers took the floor in the third quarter with a ten point lead; it became downright uncomfortable when a one-legged LeBron James three pointer cut the lead to two in the fourth quarter. Here were all of the Clippers demons: Pressure? Check. Lost momentum? Check. Adversity? Check. Imposing opponent? Check and double check.
So to win this game, and to do it rather emphatically (some shakey foul shooting aside), is more than just a win. It's a signature win. It's the kind of win that a young team can look at and say "Hey, we're ready now. It's not about potential anymore. It's about results."
There are no caveats on this game; no asterisks. The Heat weren't flat. This game was important to them. They were playing for the franchise record of 14 straight road games. Miami didn't play poorly - on the contrary, they played well, and all three of their big guns had big games and made some flat out ridiculous shots. They finished with 31 (Dwyane Wade), 27 (LeBron James) and 26 (Chris Bosh). And while the Clippers did allow most of a 21 point lead dwindle away, there was no terrible lapse in their execution, no disturbing loss of focus. The Heat mounted a comeback behind some incredible basketball, in particular by Wade in the second quarter, and aided a bit by simple Clipper misses in the third. I thought the Clippers played very well in the third, their traditional Waterloo. But the basket at that end of Staples just seemed to have a lid on it, as layup after layup just refused to go down.
And did I mention adversity? Bearing in mind that Chris Kaman, Craig Smith and Brian Cook, three of their top five bigs, have all been out for weeks, the Clippers lost DeAndre Jordan 58 seconds into the second half, when he picked up his second foul of the half, his fourth of the game. When Blake Griffin began experiencing back spasms early in the fourth quarter, I began formulating the recap in my head, the one that said the Clippers would have won had Blake been 100 percent. Even when he returned to the Staples Center floor to the relief of the crowd, he was clearly still hurting. When the Heat start banging on him and the refs started shallowing their whistles it did not look like it would end well for LA. But for some reason Mario Chalmers decided to challenge the wounded beast, and that act may have saved the game for the Clippers. On the possession pursuant to a Chalmers/Griffin double technical, Blake got his first and only dunk of the night on a great feed from Baron Davis, the Clippers had an eight point lead, the crowd was back in a frenzy, and the Clippers had the game in hand the rest of the way.
Aside from their free throw shooting, which was bad even by their league-worst standards (note to team, four straight misses in the final 35 seconds is no way to ice the game), I don't know what more you would want from this game. The Clippers shot 50% from the field. They committed only 10 turnovers, their second lowest total of the season. They had 33 assists, a season high, on 42 made baskets. They blocked eight shots, including two each by rookies Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe. They got contributions both big and small up and down the roster. Blake Griffin had his Robocop 24 and 14 - it is his 24th consecutive double double and his 13th straight 20-10, and frankly we'd all be shocked and dismayed if he produced anything less. Eric Gordon scored 26 points on 15 shots, his usual efficient self. Baron Davis had his first 20 point game of the season, 9 assists and 5 rebounds, and his most impressive dunk of his Clippers career by far. Ryan Gomes worked hard defending LeBron and also contributed 11 points, Ike Diogu contributed 6 and 4 while Jordan and/or Griffin were resting, and Aminu and Bledsoe were just great.
Really, that's another reason that you could not have scripted a better game to get truly pumped up about this team. Not only did the play well and defeat the hottest and most hyped team in the NBA, but they also demonstrated how bright the future is, brighter even than the present. Bledsoe's two blocks were reminiscent of LeBron himself, as he had a chase down of Chalmers (he was atoning for his sin, as he was the one who had turned the ball over) followed by a flat out stuff of James himself. When you see just how athletic this guy is and then realize that he can actually play great basketball as well, and that he's only 20, it's scary to think how good he could be. Aminu meanwhile used his long arms to get his hands on multiple balls, had one huge block of Wade, and also managed to go 4 for 4 from the field with a three pointer. It's worth noting that the play that seemed to restore control for a time in the third was orchestrated by the two 20 year olds, and it was a play that they have failed to execute multiple times earlier in the season. Bledsoe poked the ball away on defense and took off for the basket with only James back; AFA sprinted to get up to him, taking the perfect lane to the basket. Bledsoe waited until James committed, then delivered the perfect, simple bounce pass to Aminu for the dunk. So simple. So effective. And a month ago, Bledsoe would have been throwing some crazy pass of the backboard and it would have resulted in a turnover. I haven't checked the archives yet, but I know for a fact that this season I have said of Bledsoe that his next step is to learn to make the easy play. Well guess what citizens - on that break, he made the easy play.
So put another notch in the belt for the Clippers, who have now beaten six teams over .500 in their 13 wins. They've also beaten the best team in the Western Conference, and the best team in the Eastern Conference. With 8 wins in their last 11 games, they are rolling, and there's really no reason they should stop. The Clippers have arrived.