Responding to Saturday’s tough home loss to Orlando might not have appeared very important on the surface, but the Clippers have seemingly been under a microscope for most of the season, and we have to face the facts; in order to remain an elite team, the Clippers need to continue to win at an elite level. There's no question that long time Clipper fans are continuing to adapt to such things, and to what could be the best Clipper team ever, while analysts are beginning to get more comfortable (or as reluctant as ever) in using the words "title contender" and the Clippers in the same sentence. Before Saturday, the Clippers were hanging on to a tenuous half game lead over Oklahoma City for the NBA’s best record. By Sunday, the Clippers were at best the clear number two team in the West in the eyes of most critics, with the potential to slide down to the three or four seed with a road heavy schedule looming over the next month.
The back to back road games against Memphis and Houston appeared daunting enough, but with the news of Chris Paul’s injuring causing him to miss Monday’s game in Memphis, another losing streak or rough stretch of games looked all too probable. Except Monday’s win gave the Clippers a much needed shot in the arm, and once again showed the benefits of the team’s unusually brilliant depth, especially at point guard. The Clippers against all odds went into Memphis, who may have been viewed as a more respected team (outside of Clipper Nation), and not only got the win but won by a whopping 26 points. To come back and follow through with a strong win in Houston last night on the second game of a road back to back was a convincing way to follow through and earn a chance to sweep the three game trip in Minnesota on Thursday. With games coming up against the Thunder and Warriors next week, arguably the Clippers two biggest rivals and toughest matchups, these wins are crucial and show that this Clipper team might just be a lot more than the sum of their parts. Either way, chalk up Monday's win over the Grizzlies as a "statement win", with Tuesday's win at Houston the "and one".
January 4th & 5th, vs. LAL & Golden State
After the Clippers historic 17 game winning streak, they found the altitude in Denver too much to manage, losing 78-92 on New Year’s Day. Did they party a little too much on New Year’s eve? It would be hard to blame them, and a streak like that on New Year’s has to make a team feel a little super human. But they’d get a pass on the Denver loss, which also alleviated some who worried of the streak coming to an end versus the Lakers later in the week. However, they had to play in Golden State the day after losing in Denver before they could worry about the Lakers, and they never really had a chance in this game as the Warriors blitzed them early, and eventually won by 21. For all the ugly home losses this year, this could’ve been the toughest to take. Sure they had the excuse of being caught off guard by the Warriors in their first win at Staples, after all, how were the Clippers supposed to know they were the most improved team in the league? Then they had the built-in excuse in this second meeting at Golden State, being the second game of a road back to back. Still, if you were a Clipper fan and you watched that game, you likely felt that one in your gut, and it hurt. To finally gain some real separation from the Lakers, only to have to deal with a pesky upstart in Golden State (who now might have our number?) was especially frustrating. Luckily, the Clippers would respond well to the beat down in Golden State, no doubt a testament to the veteran leadership on the team.
Vs. Lakers: Most importantly the Clippers really needed a win in this spot and the Lakers happened to be next on the schedule. In fact, this might’ve been the first game in the Blake Griffin era where both teams really needed a win and it was more about the individual teams than the whole "Lakers - Clippers" thing. Delving deeper, it could’ve been seen as important to prove the first win over the Lakers earlier in the season wasn’t a fluke, and there was also no sense in helping the struggling Lakers turn their season around by giving them any hopes of taking back the division. The Clippers would control most of the game, before getting into clock management mode in the 4th quarter and allowing the Lakers back in as a result. Luckily, Chris Paul was able to close the door late and the Clippers escaped with a win they needed.
Vs. Golden State: Coming off a nail-biting win at home against the Lakers the night before, questions remained about whether the Warriors held some kind of a psychological or strategic advantage. Would the Clippers have another excuse, having nearly emptied the tank the night before, while Golden State had plenty of rest? Luckily, the Clippers were able to parlay the excitement of the Laker victory into perhaps the most impressive and important win of the year, demolishing the Warriors, who infamously celebrated on their court in the second game of the season, and also handed the Clippers one of their most embarrassing losses of the season in Oakland. Any previously held Clipper frustrations and angst seemed to be let out in this big win as the Clippers went up by 23 after the first quarter and by 37 after the third. In an attempt to avenge the previous two losses in one shot, Vinny Del Negro's Clipboard read "NO MERCY", and the team carried out the directions so well that it resulted in a Mark Jackson stare-down by the end of it.
"The Streak", November 28th – December 30th
After such a hot start to the season, it was back to reality for the Clippers losing three straight on the road after a grind-it-out win in San Antonio. The overtime loss against the Thunder in Oklahoma City led to two more ugly losses in Brooklyn and Atlanta, finishing up their first road trip of the year a disappointing one and three over the four games. When they got back home they clearly weren’t ready to play their best, as New Orleans came in and shocked them on their home court, creating what could be seen as the worst loss of the year. Blake Griffin had one of his worst nights as a pro, seeming so desperate to get revenge over Jason Smith for his body blow last year in New Orleans, but instead coming away embarrassed and frustrated.
Earlier in the year, we saw the Clippers bounce back from a bad home loss to Cleveland with six straight wins against playoff teams. Fortunately the Clippers were able to bounce back again and get a much needed win on November 28th while hosting the Timberwolves after the ugly loss to New Orleans, putting an end to the season long four game losing streak. Chauncey Billups returned to action in this game, relieving the struggling Willie Green, and even though he would only last two more games before being forced out of the lineup with an injury, his return might’ve been more instrumental than originally realized as the team went on to win a franchise record 17 straight games, which tied for the 9th longest streak in NBA history (post-merger).
While the Clippers soft schedule gave them an opportunity to win big in December, they became only the 3rd team in history to sweep an entire month of games. The streak featured two epic wins in Utah, both which came down to the wire and included recent ex Clippers Mo Williams and Randy Foye taking turns playing great in defeat. There was another quality road win in Chicago, followed by a close win in Charlotte on the second night of a back to back on the road. Other than those four road games and the Minnesota home game that started the streak, all other twelve wins were at least double digit wins, though home wins against Utah and Denver, and at Detroit weren’t exactly easy. All totaled, the average margin of victory during the streak was 15.2 PPG (18.0 in ten home games and 7.4 in seven away from Staples). Truth be told, the Clippers spent most of the time beating the weaker teams in the league at home, but they did so by impressive margins and showed up with enough to get the job done every night.
Tough Opening Schedule
The first few weeks of the season featured multiple heavyweight matchups (at least on paper) for the Clippers, with 10 of the first 11 games coming against projected playoff teams (Lakers, Warriors, Blazers, Hawks, Bulls), and five of them against the top teams in the league with the Grizzlies, Heat, Thunder and two games against the Spurs all on the schedule. The Clippers came out with four wins in five games against the aforementioned elite teams, with the one loss coming in overtime against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. They came out with a sparkling eight wins against three losses in total, with the other two losses seemingly aberrations at home against the Warriors and Cavaliers.
With each statement win, Clipper fans believe more and more that the unthinkable is possible, that the unreal (a championship banner) could possibly be a reality here in June. Critics and analysts who’ve covered the league for years, so accustomed to dismissing this team are now forced to confront and put aside whatever biases they may have over the Clipper franchise, and admit that without a doubt this is one of the best teams in the league.
As a regular listener of talk radio, and of 710 ESPN in particular (who cover the Lakers primarily), I tend to listen for hours just to get that nugget or morsel of respect that may or may not be paid to the Clippers on any given day. I had to wait a while on my commute on Tuesday after the Grizzlies win, but finally heard Lakers announcer John Ireland utter the words, "It’s time we all wake up and realize what the Clippers have here", and I couldn't agree more. They’ll ultimately be judged on how they do in the playoffs, but they’re doing just about everything possible to legitimize themselves before the event.