A win streak. It's a win streak.
Entering the week, the Clippers had the second worst record in the NBA. But looking decidedly unlike a last place team, they have won back to back games for the first time this season, and did so against a pair of 15 game winners who were until very recently leading their respective divisions. Were it not for a horrific drought at the beginning of the fourth quarter Monday against Orlando, it would have been three big time pelts in a week for the Clippers.
This is, simply put, a different team since Zach Randolph arrived in town. They were 2-12 before he joined the team. They lost their first game with him by one point, and are 4-4 since, and they've been in almost every game. They are still a minus 5 in point differential on the season, but they lost almost all their early games by wide margins. In the nine games since Z-Bo joined the team, they are actually a plus 2.
Aside from a couple of brief lapses, the Clippers dominated the Rockets in this game. Excellent defense held Houston to 35.6% from the field. I wasn't charting deflections, but you can bet MDsr was, and you can also bet that he was happy. 12 blocks and 8 steals give you 20 right off the bat - as a team, they probably had 20 more at least.
Houston did not look good. I'm not sure all of the credit can go to the Clippers defense. The Rockets just looked flat. Both teams played last night, although the Clippers had a longer flight, not to mention two OTs. But clearly they were the more active team in this game.
The Clippers played well in the first half, but couldn't sustain it. After a terrible sequence in which the Rockets scored 5 points in the final 10 seconds of the half, and then opened the second half on a 6-2 run, the Clippers were behind 54-47. From that point, they outscored the Rockets 48-28.
It started with defense. With 6 minutes left in the third, the Clippers were still down 2. The next 6 Rocket possessions were:
- Steal by Eric Gordon leading to a layup
- Steal by Marcus Camby (after a Gordon deflection) leading to a layup
- Steal by Al Thornton leading to a layup
- Missed long jump shot by Tracy McGrady
- Missed long jump shot by Rafer Alston
- Steal by Zach Randolph leading to a layup
Four steals and two long jumpers in 6 possessions. That's just great defense. Not to mention the scoring opportunities being generated. For a team that has yet to shoot 50% in a game this season, those easy baskets can really come in handy. (The Clippers shot 47% for the game, and were well over 50% on their 2 point shots at 36 for 68.)
Going into the season, I was hoping / expecting that the Clippers would be able to generate a lot of steals this season; the presence of not one but two top level shot blockers protecting the rim allowing the perimeter defenders to gamble a little more. Unfortunately it really hasn't happened before this game. However, in the third the Clipper defenders were jumping into passing lanes and doubling from the blind side and just generally flying around the court. It was completely uncharacteristic of the team, to tell you the truth. And it was a lot of fun.
Eric Gordon is already a very good defender at 19. His hands are incredibly quick and he's very good at staying in front of his man. And he got another blocked shot tonight. If he improves as one would expect a motivated 19 year old rookie should, he could be a defensive terror in this league. He also showed an ability to get to the rim in this game - he went 5 for 5 from inside the arc, and several of those were tough drives to the basket.
But back to Zach for a moment. I already mentioned how much better the team has been since acquiring him. He scored 30 tonight after going for 38 last night. He finished the game shooting 12 for 23 - and that was with him going cold in a 2 for 7 fourth. He was 10 for 16 in the first three quarters, and very few of them were easy shots. He's in an incredible groove right now, and it can't possible last forever, but let's hope it lasts a little longer. There are many things that Elton Brand does better than Zach Randolph - shot blocking and defense come to mind - but Randolph is a significantly better scorer than EB ever was, and it's not really close.
Don't look now, but the Clippers aren't even in last place in the division any more - that distinction now belongs to the 6-18 Kings. Seven of the next eight opponents have losing records, and the other one is Dallas, and frankly the Clippers should have beaten them twice already this season. So with a bit of momentum and a soft spot in the schedule, the Clippers could actually do some damage before New Year's Day.
Something very interesting has happened in the Western Conference so far this season. Right now, there are 9 teams with winning percentages of .580 or better, and 6 at .350 or worse, and nobody in between. In other words, it's looking like there are 9 teams fighting for the 8 playoff spots, and 6 who can start making lottery plans here in mid-December. But if a team got hot, they could get back into the discussion pretty easily. I'm not saying it's going to be the Clippers. But if they run off some wins, and a couple of of the top 9 teams get cold (Phoenix being a prime possibility), it could happen.
Two other things that caught my eye in this game:
- After saying that he wasn't particularly flashy in my preview, Rafer Alston broke out one of the niftiest dribble moves I've seen in an NBA game in a long time. With the left hand, he went through his legs, back to front, as he changed direction on the way to the rim for the (appropriately) and-one. It was sweet.
- You have to give MDsr for the way he's using Mike Taylor and Jason Hart right now. Taylor got the call in the first half, as he is still second on the depth chart at the point. But he had two terrible turnovers on consecutive possessions in the second quarter. When Baron came back on the floor, Taylor took a seat and didn't get back up. In the second half, it was Hart, who frankly looked significantly better in this game. He still can't shoot, and I have no idea why he would be taking a PUJIT. But he ran the team well, and his defense was outstanding - he came up with 2 blocks and a steal in only 8 minutes. I guess you have to give Hart credit for being ready when MDsr called him as well.
It was a good win. Not as exciting as beating Portland on the road in double OT, but perhaps more satisfying. The Clippers pretty much dominated a top opponent for the first time this season. Three straight starts Tuesday night in Oklahoma.