Throughout the Los Angeles Clippers 117-101 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night it felt like the game could go badly wrong at any moment. The Clippers looked razor sharp on offense and seemed to be able to score at will. But between a red-hot start by Monta Ellis and some terrific three point shooting by the Bucks, the Clippers could never seem to put the game away.
L.A. never trailed after the first quarter, but they couldn't land the knock out blow either. They built a 15 point lead in the second quarter -- but three minutes later the lead was down to five. They built it back up to 11, the Bucks cut it to five again, they built it to 10, the Bucks cut it to three.
So heading into the fourth quarter with the Clippers up seven, I was still nervous. After all, the Clippers are 0-11 this season when they allow their opponent to make 11 three pointers while shooting better than 40% from deep. Through three quarters of this one, the Bucks were 11-22 from deep. It did not bode well.
But a 15-2 run stretched the lead to 18 midway through the quarter and finally there was some room to breathe. It's a good thing too, since the Clippers were off to Denver to play the Nuggets at the conclusion of the game. Chris Paul didn't enter the game in the fourth quarter and played just 32 minutes total. Blake Griffin played 33 minutes, and no one else played as many as 29. So while there's nothing to be done about the travel and the altitude, at least the players are worn out in addition to everything else.
Griffin was the star of the night, posting his third career triple double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists -- bear in mind he did all that in just 33 minutes. He played with a level of energy that is rare even for him. In the first quarter in blocked a shot on one end, chased down the ball in the corner before it went out of bounds, turned to head up court with the dribble, and didn't stop until he made a layup while being fouled on the other end. It was an end to end play that few players in the league could make.
But Griffin wasn't alone in posting a highly efficient scoring night. Griffin scored 23 points on 14 shots, making nine of them. Matt Barnes scored 20 points on 12 shots, making 6-11 three pointers and a layup, the only two pointer he took. And Jamal Crawford continued his post-London scoring tear with 25 points on 16 shots, making three three pointers along the way. The Clippers bench, obviously led by Crawford and Barnes, scored 56 points on the night; the starters scored 61.
The ball movement for the Clippers was terrific. For the second time in nine days the team had over 30 assists. They finished with 33 assists, which is one shy of their season high set last Tuesday against the Bobcats. It was the second time this season the Clippers have compiled 33 assists against the Bucks. L.A. has now scored 228 points and handed out 66 assists against what is supposed to be a pretty good defensive team.
It is interesting to note that against a Bucks team that doesn't really have any big bruisers inside, Vinny Del Negro went with the small second unit featuring Grant Hill at the power forward and Lamar Odom at the center. We thought this might be his preferred lineup when Hill became healthy enough to play, but injuries to others through rotations into turmoil. Even after the team had returned to full health, we've continued to see plenty of Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf (even together on Sunday). But it looks as if the season-long question of who should be getting those second unit minutes, Turiaf or Hollins may have an answer after -- neither. At least not against certain teams.
The Clippers continued their recent trend of easily beating the lesser opponents in the league. Since Paul has returned from injury, the Clippers have just three losses -- the the Heat, the Spurs and the Thunder. They have nine wins in that time, eight of the by double digits. And it's not as if they've been playing a bunch of cellar dwellers -- six of the nine wins have come against teams over .500. They're beating everyone else, but they haven't been able to beat any of the big three since November.
Tomorrow night in Denver might as well be against one of the big three. The Nuggets are 26-3 at home, the best home record in the Western Conference. A win in Denver would be huge for re-establishing the Clippers as among the very best teams in the league. If they can come out with the same energy they had in this game, it could happen.