It wasn't pretty and it wasn't easy, but the Los Angeles Clippers took care of business against the Chicago Bulls Tuesday night, opening their four game road trip with a win over the toughest opponent they'll face this week and extending their winning streak to seven games. It is the longest winning streak for the Clippers in over 21 years, since December of 1991. That was during the Bush Administration -- the George H.W. Bush Administration.
The defense might have suggested an easier win than it wound up being except for two things -- three point shooting and offensive rebounds. The Clippers held the Bulls to 40 percent on the field -- but allowed them to make half of their 20 three point attempts. The Bulls only made 25 of their 67 two pointers. But with all those misses bouncing around, they also grabbed 18 offensive rebounds. Down the stretch the Bulls scored six points on put backs, four at the line and one three pointer that cut the Clippers lead to two. But they would get no closer.
The Clippers got a little bit of all the things that have made them successful this season. The defense was good (except at the three point line and on the glass), holding the Bulls to a poor shooting percentage, forcing 17 turnovers and coming up with 11 steals (their league leading season average). In a game with very little offensive flow, the couple of runs the Clippers did go on were fueled entirely by their defense, with steals leading to run outs.
Chris Paul was far from his best, shooting 6-15 with just 4 assists, but he did hit the key basket with 27 seconds left and three free throws down the stretch. Honestly, it's nice to be able to beat a good team on the road with Paul being less than great -- I'm not sure last season's Clippers team could have done that.
Blake Griffin had a 22/10 double-double. Jamal Crawford only scored 10, but he also had five assists, several of them leading to spectacular dunks. Matt Barnes scored 14, the tenth time this season that he has done so. Ralph and Mike have been harping on how the Clippers are 9-1 in the games where Barnes is in double figures, but how about this? The Clippers are actually 9-0 in games when Barnes scores double figures off the bench. (They lost to Oklahoma City with Barnes scoring 19 in a starting role when Caron Butler was injured.)
The box score doesn't seem to indicate that Eric Bledsoe had one of his better games, but don't be fooled. While he scored just six points with three assists, his production came at a crucial juncture of the game. At the start of the fourth quarter, after the Clippers' lead had been cut to two points, Bledsoe manufactured eight points on the Clippers next four possessions. He made a layup, fed Griffin for an alley oop dunk, made a floater and finished with a step back jumper. After his flurry the Clippers were up eight and the Bulls spent the rest of the game swimming up stream.
The most interesting thing to come out of this game may be the closing unit that Vinny Del Negro chose to use. From the moment the Clippers acquired Lamar Odom this summer I assumed that he would close games in the front court with Griffin. DeAndre Jordan has the disadvantage of poor free throw shooting, and is also a bit of a wild card at the end of games. I'm not sure it's entirely justified, but it's pretty clear VDN doesn't really trust him out there. At any rate, if VDN would opt for either Reggie Evans or Kenyon Martin over DeAndre, then Odom is a no brainer.
Odom threw a wrench in that plan by showing up to camp out of shape, but now that he's lost weight and is feeling and playing better, he's getting more minutes. The Clippers have had a lot of close games since Odom has become more fit, but tonight for the first time we saw a closing lineup of Paul, Crawford, Barnes, Griffin and Odom. Erik O wrote about the "Voltron" lineup earlier today in his terrific post about the Clippers bench. The "Voltron" lineup this season has been Paul, Crawford, Barnes, Griffin and Jordan -- but as good as that group has been, I expect that VDN will go with Odom over Jordan more often than not (and of course matchups will be a factor in that decision).
Odom's presence down the stretch paid a couple of direct dividends. He's a terrific team defender, so he's going to help there, especially against all the pick and roll the Bulls were running. But more specifically, he made a nifty floater in the lane as the shot clock was winding down on one possession, and then found Griffin on a high-low lob dunk a couple minutes later. I have to admit, after watching Odom throw deft lobs to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for years for that other L.A. team, I had fantasies about what he could do with Griffin and Jordan on the other end of those passes. We haven't seen a ton of Odom playing with the starters so far, but we will be seeing more and more of it. I can't stress how difficult -- and how pretty -- the pass was that he made. He was beyond the three point line, but knew before he received the pass from Paul that Griffin had Joakim Noah sealed -- the ball barely rested in his own hands before he dropped the pass right into Griffin's at the rim. It's a bloody luxury having a big who can make plays like that on the floor.
On paper this was the toughest game of the current road trip (and one of the four toughest of the month of December, two of which are already in the W column). The Bulls had won five of six and were playing well -- so it's a very good win. Of course, the Clippers opened their last four game road trip with a great win in San Antonio and proceeded to lose the next three, so we know these things can go wrong quickly. But the important thing for now is getting the first win of the trip.
With the win the Clippers go a full game up on the Warriors in the Pacific Division and coupled with a Lakers loss in Cleveland gives the Clippers a 6.5 game lead (!) over their STAPLES Center roommates.
For the Chicago perspective check out Blog a Bull.