For the most part, the Los Angeles Clippers first seven victories this season have come relatively easily. The team has gotten off to pretty good starts, and has defended so well and scored so easily when they've needed to that games have been decided relatively early. Monday night in San Antonio against the Spurs was another story. Although the Clippers never trailed in the second half, they did have to overcome some adversity and withstand a furious Spurs comeback in front of a rabid crowd. In the end, it was the Clippers ugliest, and yet most satisfying win of the season, 92-87.
The Clippers shot poorly and committed far too many turnovers in the first quarter and as a consequence trailed by 10 after one. Jamal Crawford's struggles were symptomatic of the whole team -- he dribbled off his own foot on his first touch of the game, and then lost the ball out of bounds on what should have been the final possession of the quarter -- instead the Spurs got a layup to stretch the lead to 10, and that was how the quarter seemed to go for the Clippers.
But as has been so often the case, the second unit came in and immediately turned the game around. A 21-3 run early in the second quarter fueled by the defense and energy of the Clippers super subs essentially decided the game. The Clippers turned their 10 point deficit into an eight point lead and never trailed again.
The Clippers got significant contributions up and down the lineup in this one. Chris Paul provided a solid if unspectacular 19 points and eight assists -- not to mention the crucial basket down the stretch that doubled L.A.'s tenuous two point lead with just 25 seconds left. Blake Griffin was good for 16 points and 12 rebounds, though his four missed free throws in the fourth quarter held the door open for San Antonio until Paul slammed it shut. DeAndre Jordan had a nice enough 13 points.
But with a scoreless Caron Butler leaving the game in the first quarter with a strained shoulder and Crawford suffering through a rare off shooting night (he was just 4-14) the Clippers needed to go a bit deeper into their deep bench for big plays. (The Spurs also lost a small forward as Stephen Jackson left the game with a fractured finger that will see him miss the next four weeks or more.)
Matt Barnes, playing big minutes in the absence of Butler, came up huge. He logged a team high +19 plus/minus, and his three consecutive offensive rebounds leading to six straight points were right at the heart of the team's second quarter turnaround. Barnes also played tough defense on Manu Ginobili, holding him to 3-11 shooting and getting enough under Manu's skin to draw an offensive foul when the Argentine tried to sneak an elbow past the refs.
Barnes' second quarter second chance points were matched in the fourth by Ronny Turiaf. With Lamar Odom rounding into shape and playing better and Ryan Hollins getting most of the burn at backup center, Turiaf has settled into the towel-waver role he plays so well as the 11th man. But when the overly aggressive Hollins picked up his sixth foul in just 14 minutes and with Vinny Del Negro not ready to come back with his starting bigs, Turiaf got the call. He responded immediately with two putbacks at a crucial stage of the game, and grabbed a third offensive rebound for good measure. He had three boards and four points in 5 crucial fourth quarter minutes. And continuing the second chance points theme, Eric Bledsoe, who is inch for inch the best offensive rebounder in the NBA, also had two fourth quarter follow baskets -- once taking the rebound over the 6'11 Tim Duncan.
The Clippers are fortunate not to have lost this game at the line. At some point this season, they will lose a game because of poor free throw shooting, and it easily could have happened in this one. Although DeAndre Jordan was a decent-for-him 3-6, Griffin was 0-4, and 3-10 combined from those two is not good enough.
The Clippers also shot terribly from beyond the three point arc. Butler's absence definitely hurt there as he's their best three point shooter, and without him the team was just 1-12. It's not easy winning a game while being outscored on free throws and three pointers by a combined 27 points, but the Clippers are to be commended on pulling it off.
The win, coupled with a loss by the Memphis Grizzlies and of course a loss for the Spurs catapults the Clippers into a tie with the Grizzlies for the best record in the Western Conference -- and we'll have to give the tie breaker to the Clippers since they beat the Grizz earlier this year. When was the last time the Clippers had the best record in the conference 10 or more games into an NBA season? Try never. This is also the Clippers sixth straight win, tying the longest winning streak since they won seven straight in 1991.
Winning on the road, against one of the best teams in the league and a long time nemesis, in a game where they faced adversity, where they weren't necessarily clicking the way they have so often this season -- this is a big win. They needed a full team effort, especially on the defensive end where they held the Spurs to just 35 percent shooting. Some times things don't just come to you, and you have to go out and take it. The Clippers took a win in San Antonio tonight.