April 7, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe (12) dunks against the Sacramento Kings in the first half of the game at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Tonight's 109-94 win by the Los Angeles Clippers over the Sacramento Kings was significant for several reasons. First of all, with their 34th win in a lockout shortened 66 game season, it assures the Clippers of finishing the season with a winning record for just the third time in their 28 year Los Angeles existence. Secondly, at 34-22, they are 12 games above .500 for the first time this year. Most importantly, with the Lakers losing for the second time in as many nights, the Los Angeles teams are now tied in the loss column. The Lakers still hold a half game lead by virtue of having one more win, and they hold the head to head tie breaker, so it's not enough for the Clippers to tie them -- they have to pass them -- but with Kobe Bryant hurting (he sat out tonight's game in Phoenix with a sore calf), the Lakers looking less than impressive lately, some very tough opponents remaining for the Lakers, and the Clippers having won 8 of their last 9, the Pacific Division is pretty much there for the taking. What a different feeling than three days ago when the Lakers beat the Clippers.
The game against the Kings was a little dicey for awhile -- and pure fun for the last half hour or so. The expected fireworks between DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin didn't really materialize -- Blake did pick up his 11th technical foul of the season (more on that later) when he got tripped up by Cousins, but I don't think Cousins tripped him on purpose.
The fireworks were limited to Blake's playing -- where he scored 27 points on 12-15 shooting, grabbed 14 rebounds, and passed for 4 assists. If the guy could make a bleeding free throw (he was 3-9 tonight, making him 5 for his last 21) he'd be a pretty good basketball player. Blake had a slew of dunks on the game, including one where he reached way back to catch an offline Eric Bledsoe lob and flush it with one hand, while grazing his forehead against the backboard.
The play after Griffin's dunk, Chris Paul knocked the ball away and he and Eric Bledsoe went out on a two-on-none break. Paul threw the backboard lob to Bledsoe, who threw it done with two hands and did a chin up on the rim afterwards (I really can't believe he didn't get a technical foul, honestly). Those plays gave the Clippers a 14 point lead, punctuating a 20-7 Clippers run to blow open a one point game, and it was never close again.
Randy Foye had another monster game shooting the three ball, making 7 of 9 on his way to 25 points. It's really a shame that one of Foye's only poor shooting night's in recent games came against the Lakers or the outcome of that game would probably have been different. During the Clippers last 9 games when they've been playing so well, Foye has made 31 of 69 three pointers -- those two things are not unrelated.
Chris Paul started the game 1 for 8, but finished 6-14, with 19 points, 15 assists and 7 steals. There's some cause and effect there as well -- while Paul was struggling to score, the Kings hung close. Once Paul got going, the game was over quickly. The Clippers trailed only once, at 6-4 early, but they did allow the Kings to hang around well into the third quarter. Paul's seven steals put him in the league lead in steals per game -- he started the day tied with Mike Conley of the Grizzlies, but Conley only came up with a relatively normal two while Paul was robbing Sacramento blind.
Bledsoe might have been the most fun Clipper of the night, on a night that was pretty fun. (A shout out to Kenyon Martin as well, who made a massive impact on the defensive end, and was an astounding +29 in 24 minutes on the court.) Bledsoe had 9 assists, 8 points and 3 steals in 20 minutes of play -- very nice numbers, especially the assists. But his impact was greater than that. He single-handedly destroyed the Sacramento zone that had give the Clippers fits just two nights ago. Bledsoe is a blur with the ball, and was able to penetrate the zone at will (though why he didn't do that on Thursday is unclear to me.) Once he got into the middle, the zone collapsed, and Bledsoe picked out shooters at the perimeter and at the rim at will. We know that he can get out of control, but when he can avoid mistakes, the guy is a game-changer -- in good ways. At one point he took a pass at the top of the key, shot down the lane before the zone could adjust and exploded to the rim for the jam -- it was jaw-dropping; it was Westbrookian. And back to that Paul-Bledsoe backboard oop -- this is a six foot point guard we're talking about, catching oops off the backboard and finishing with two hands. Yikers. Just to complete his night, his other basket was a three pointer.
The Clippers now head out on the road, to play three VERY tough games -- Memphis, Oklahoma City and Minnesota. Just the team chasing them in the standing that also happens to be one of the only teams in the league as hot as they are, the team battling for first place in the Western Conference, and the team that has yet to lose to the Clippers in three tries. The Clippers could come back from this trip in third, or in sixth, or anywhere in between. Heck, they could have a great trip, win two of three, and still find themselves in fifth place.
A Pacific Division title and third place in the conference would be great, but right now the task is to stay in fourth. If they keep playing like they have been,
Note: Griffin now has 11 technical fouls on the season with 10 games remaining. If he gets 13, he'll serve a one game suspension. I'm not sure how those technicals carry over into the playoffs, and don't really want to look it up right now because I have to go play Easter Bunny. If anyone knows the answer, leave it in the comments.