Chris Paul and Blake Griffin played Denver's B team tonight and won in their last game before the All Star break, avoiding a three game losing streak and running their record to a division leading 20-11. Four of the Nuggets regulars were injured but their omission was countered by at least four of the Clipper's own regulars who didn't show up either. Fortunately for the LA team, the two guys who did show up are, by far, their best players. Chris Paul had 36 points and 0 assists, Griffin was 27-12 with 5 assists. The rest of the Clipper team? Not so much.
I suppose I'm being a little over-dramatic. Randy Foye had eleven points, DeAndre Jordan had ten points and 16(!) rebounds but it really was all about Paul and Griffin, who played 39 and 36 minutes respectively and took turns dominating a game that, had it been played on paper, would have been a walkover.
We knew coming in that the Denver Nuggets were in a tail spin, having lost nine out of their last fourteen games and the Clips were also in a little bit of a February fade, having dropped their last two, and three of their last five. We also knew that the Nugs have some injuries, Danilo Galinari, Nene, and Ty Lawson are out of the starting lineup. So, though the Nuggets are deep, they're down at least a quart of oil. The Clippers though, are mostly whole, even having lost Chauncey Billups for the season.
But the Denver Nuggets are coached by a superior fellow named George Karl. He's done a lot without a big star this year and it didn't seem to phase him at all that three of his starters weren't playing. The starting lineup for the Nugs? Kenneth Faried, Arron Afflalo, Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, and Timofey Mozgov. Wait, Kenneth Faried? The Nugs have a player named "Kenneth"?
The first half was tightly fought with the lead changing regularly. And, setting the tone for the evening, as long as Chris Paul was on the floor, everything was okay for the Clips. But thirteen points from Denver's Jordan Hamilton (who?) and eight assists from the miserable and loathsome Andre Miller (mostly on lobs to Mozgov, Faried, and Brewer) put the Nugs up by two at the half.
Paul stayed on the floor for the entire third quarter, and was probably the only reason the Clippers stayed close in the game. From 5 minutes remaining in the third until 10 minutes in the fourth, he had sixteen straight Clipper points. After a two minute rest with eight minutes left in the fourth, Paul came back and simply took the game over, and won it by making foul shots and feeding Griffin. For his part, Griffin hit free throws down the stretch and was a bull in the paint, grabbing loose balls, driving to the hoop, looking every bit like the All Star he is.
Unfortunately, it's impossible not to look at the bad part of this game. Randy Foye was 3 for 11, Mo Williams was 2 for 16, and Caron Butler was 3 for 7. The entire team went 7 for 27 on threes. (I was all ready to complain about Mo Williams in this game, his inability to play defense, his wild runs to the baseline without the ball, his reluctance to pass, all of it... but now I just don't have the heart. It wasn't like anybody else was much better. Except for Griffin and Paul of course... and they were wonderful.)
Substitution patterns are always an adventure for the Clipper coach Vinny Del Negro and tonight was no different. In the first half, Vinny went ten deep, and actually had Mo Williams, Ryan Gomes, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Evans, and Kenyon Martin all on the floor at the same time. The result was not great, Clips went -5 for that stretch. Gomes and Bledsoe (-8) were never heard from again. Kenyon Martin was also not awesome tonight. He finished with five points but only one rebound, and went -5 for the game.
Okay, the first half of the season is done. The good news: I can't remember the Clippers EVER having a record as good as 20-11... and I'm pretty sure they've NEVER had two players as good as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
We'll take it, thank you, and look forward to the second half.