The Los Angeles Clippers closed their five game home stand with their fifth straight win, defeating the Utah Jazz 105-96 Saturday night. The winning streak is their longest of the season. For the Clippers, it closes a brutal month in which they played 20 games -- which Isaac Lowenkron tells me is "the most games played by an NBA team in a single month in 45 years". So wow, right? In the end, 11-9 in the month of March is not so bad -- better than it was looking at one point, and let's face it, we'd rather the team be playing poorly at the beginning of the month and well at the end than vice versa.
This was a good win. The Clippers rode some hot three point shooting to a big early lead. They led by 17 at 31-14, and finished the quarter up 16 at 38-22. The advantage got as big as 19 in the second quarter, and was still 18 with two minutes left in the half.
A poor finish to the first half and followed by a poor beginning to the second half made for a little uneasiness in Clips Nation, as it seemed like the team was having one of it's lapses. Utah scored 14 straight on either side of the intermission to cut the lead to just 4. But the Clippers almost immediately got their house back in order. It helps that even during the Utah run, it wasn't as if L.A. was playing terrible defense -- a lot of it had to do with the fact that Al Jefferson was just having a monster night. He seemed to make everything he took (he finished 13-22 for 26 points), but I didn't think the defense was particularly bad. He's just a very talented scorer, and when he's hitting his face up 18 footer, he's very, very tough to stop.
There were some tense moment in the third quarter when Chris Paul got hit on the elbow and had to leave the game. Given how dependent the team has been on Paul, watching him on the sidelines trying to get the feeling back in his fingers, while the team nursed a five point lead that had once been 19, seemed to portend disaster. But Blake Griffin scored six straight, followed by five straight from Eric Bledsoe replacing Paul, and the Clippers put together an 11-2 run that built the lead back up to 14. The Jazz never got closer than seven the rest of the way. The truth is, aside from the first few moments of the second half, the Clippers controlled the game.
Paul took a quick trip to the locker room to get some treatment for the elbow, but returned to score 12 fourth quarter points to keep Utah at bay. (The injury was just what we used to call "getting hit on the funny bone" where the arm and hand go numb after a blow to the ulnar nerve near the elbow -- his performance in the fourth would seem to indicate that everything is OK.) He finished the game with 26 points on a hyper-efficient 10-14 shooting, including two three pointers. Griffin finished with 24 points on 10-16, and also had 8 rebounds and 6 assists in a nice overall game. Randy Foye pitched in with a solid 17 point night and Nick Young had 13 off the bench. All in all, it was a very nice bounce back game after a shaky performance Friday night against Portland.
The team made 10-21 from distance -- and that's with several relatively meaningless misses at the end. Five different Clippers made at least one three -- Caron Butler, Bobby Simmons, Foye, Young and Paul -- and when the threes are falling, it makes a huge difference for the team. If the Clippers hope to do some damage in the playoffs, they'll definitely need to hit shots as they did tonight.
The Clippers needed this win. It puts them five games in the loss column ahead of ninth place Utah, while also holding the season series tie breaker on the Jazz -- in other words, the playoffs are now looking very good. Memphis and the Lakers both won (the Lakers in the final seconds as they tried to give one away to New Orleans but couldn't quite), so they didn't gain ground on any other teams, but they didn't lose ground either.
The Clippers schedule gets tough in April, starting Monday with a meeting in Dallas with the fifth place Mavericks. The Clippers currently hold a game and a half lead on the Mavericks in the standings, so L.A. will still be in fourth place after Monday, regardless of the outcome -- but a win would definitely send a message that the five straight at home were not some fluke.
After Dallas comes the big showdown with the Lakers on Wednesday. The Clippers can take the lead in the Pacific in that game if they beat Dallas and then beat the Lakers (no big deal right, just the last two NBA champs), regardless of what the Lakers do in their games.
For now, the Clippers can feed off the good feelings of a five game winning streak. They've climbed back to 10 games over .500, which was the high water mark of the season originally reached back in mid-February at 19-9. They've also won seven straight at home, and are undefeated with Chauncey Billups on the bench with them.
March is over. Now it's time to close out the season with a strong April to head into the playoffs with momentum.