The Denver Nuggets are a good team. They've had a very difficult opening to the season, with 20 of their first 29 games coming on the road, but they've managed to stay above .500 and have recent wins against the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets have played well enough that I felt that the Los Angeles Clippers 13 game winning streak was in jeopardy tonight.
I shouldn't have been worried.
Although the Nuggets outscored the Clippers in three out of four quarters in the game, the remaining quarter, the second, was so thoroughly dominated by the Clippers that the game was never in doubt after halftime. The first quarter ended with the Nuggets holding a one point lead, and the game was still pretty close at 39-36 Clippers midway through the second. But Chris Paul re-entered at that point, and the Clippers proceeded to go on a 28-12 run to end the first half. The Clippers took a 19 point lead into intermission, and although the Nuggets got within 9 for a brief time in the third, they could get no closer.
Much has been made of the depth of the Clippers this season, and this game showed it to good advantage once again, against a team that fancies itself as deep as anyone. Bench players accounted for 64 of the Clippers' 112 points in the game, with reserves Jamal Crawford (22) and Matt Barnes (20) leading the way. But the strength of the bench masks a secret about the Clippers -- their second unit is really great because three of their best players come off the bench, and when those three play with Paul and Blake Griffin, the team is almost unbeatable.
Crawford and Barnes are the Clippers best wings and there's really no debate on the subject. Caron Butler and Willie Green may be the starters, but Crawford has been the finisher from the first game of the season, and Barnes has been closing games for a while now. Butler and Green aren't bad -- in fact, they're pretty good. But they're just not as good as Crawford and Barnes.
Not every game illustrates the difference quite so dramatically, but this one is a good example of the effect on the team. Butler and Green were each minus 8 in roughly one third of the available minutes on the wings. Crawford and Barnes were plus 20 in the other two-thirds -- and that's with them allowing a 10-0 Nuggets run long after the outcome had been decided. Denver may have won quarters 1, 3 and 4, but only because the Clippers always start the first and third quarters with some of their best players on the bench. (The fourth didn't really count as the Clippers led by 17 at the start and the game descended into extended garbage time early.) Add in Lamar Odom for DeAndre Jordan and the unit of Paul, Crawford, Barnes, Griffin and Odom is as good a fivesome as there is in the NBA. That group was simply terrific in this game.
Griffin did not have a particularly good game (Kenneth Faried of the Nuggets gave him trouble in the pre-season as well and really seems to bother Blake with his activity). Even Griffin's subpar games aren't bad of course -- he finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds and 6
rebounds assists -- but it was Crawford, Barnes and of course Paul that were the real difference makers in this one. Paul finished with 14 points, 8 assists and 3 steals, and seemed to be able to find the exactly correct play whenever the Clippers needed it.
The win, L.A.'s 14th in a row extending the franchise record, coupled with Oklahoma City's loss in Miami, gives the Clippers the best record in the NBA. Let me repeat that -- the Los Angeles Clippers have the best record in the NBA on Christmas night, 28 games into the regular season. And this is no fluke -- the Clippers have the best record because they have been the best team. Which is saying something also, because several teams (the Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies and Heat come immediately to mind) have been really, really good. But the Clippers have been better and deserve to be called the best in the NBA as of this moment. They lead the Pacific Division by four games over Golden State. The Lakers, winners of five in a row themselves, must be wondering what they have to do to gain ground in the standings, where they remain stuck eight games back.
Next up for the Clippers is Boston on Thursday night in another nationally televised game, this time on TNT. As well as the Clippers have played on ESPN and TNT this season (tonight's win on ESPN runs their record to 6-1 with the lone loss coming in overtime in Oklahoma City), it would seem likely that the Clippers will win their 15th in a row Thursday.
It may be time to start thinking about running the table in December -- can the Clippers have a perfect, 16-0 month? As well as they're playing right now, I don't see why not.
For the Nuggets point of view, visit Denver Stiffs.
|Final - 12.25.2012
|Los Angeles Clippers