Earlier in the season the Los Angeles Clippers reeled off big wins on a seemingly weekly basis. However, in the four weeks since Chris Paul was injured the team had a couple of big wins in the first two games without their team leader, but have not had one since. Not until today.
With Paul back for the second straight game, and playing like himself this time after a 1-5 showing in Miami, the Clippers handled the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, despite 42 points from Carmelo Anthony. And it wasn't just a big win -- it was the Clippers as they were back in December, the Clippers we haven't seen in a while.
With Paul back in the starting lineup and Eric Bledsoe back leading the second unit, the bench dominated this game the way they did through so much of the first couple of months of the season. Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford, back in their familiar roles as the second unit backcourt, spearheaded a 13-0 run from the end of the first quarter through the start of the second to open up what had been a close game. Then when Anthony led the Knicks back to the lead briefly after a huge third quarter against a lackluster Clippers starting unit, it was the bench once again that righted the ship with a 15-4 run early in the fourth quarter. That run gave the Clippers a nine point lead, and the Knicks would not get closer than six points the rest of the way.
Just look at the plus/minus numbers for the game. Bledsoe led the Clippers with a +20, Crawford was +17, with Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins at +16 and +15 respectively. Paul was actually -6, but that is not to say he wasn't terrific. In fact, the Clippers starting unit was able to absorb the best shot of the Knicks starters, reload and recover while the backups were in the game, and then a rested Paul did what he does best -- he closed the deal. After the Knicks had fought back to within six with 2:47 remaining, Paul scored the next five for the Clippers to put the game out of reach.
It would be great news if all this game did was to establish the Clippers as the team they were before Paul and others went down with injuries. If this game were just an indication that the undefeated December and the best record in the league at the new year were not illusions, that the team really is as good as they looked back then, it would be enough. But the news is even better, because with Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill on the floor together for the first time this season, there's a least a hint that the Clippers can be even better than that December team.
Billups was good if unspectacular. He was steady, which is what you want. Although he was only 2-7 on his three point attempts, one certainly feels confident when he's shooting that shot. While the Clippers can't expect Billups to play at the All Star level he's been at for much of his career, there's little doubt that he's an upgrade over Willie Green.
Meanwhile, all Grant Hill did was turn the game around. Coming out of a fourth quarter timeout, the "Wired" microphones caught Paul saying this to Hill:
I know you're 40 and all, but right now you're the difference in this game.
Let's face it, Paul is a smart guy, and he was spot on regarding Hill's impact.
I've long been a big fan of the Grant Hill signing, but his injured knee kept him out of the lineup for all of the Clippers most impressive play of the season. In fact, Hill made his season debut in the game in which Paul was injured, so by definition he's only been a part of a less impressive Clipper squad this season. But the reason I liked the Hill signing, the reason I believed he could help this team, is that even last season at 39, he was a lock down defender who had the ability to defend four positions. If he could do it at 39, there's a decent chance he can still do it at 40, and we witnessed today in Madison Square Garden that in fact he can.
Hill did not appear in the first half. But when Caron Butler's back tightened up and kept him in the locker room in the second half (and it's unknown at this point how serious that injury is) Hill was forced to backup Matt Barnes at small forward after intermission. Hill made his first appearance of the game with 3:20 remaining in the third quarter after Barnes had picked up three fouls trying to defend Anthony. At that point, Anthony had 33 points in 30 minutes, torching a variety of Clipper defenders including Griffin, Barnes and for a misbegotten few minutes at the end of first half Crawford. Hill played the final 15 minutes of the game, guarding Anthony for the 13 minutes he was on the floor. And while Carmelo did put up nine points in that time, by my count only two of them came against Hill.
In those final 13 minutes, Hill held Carmelo to 3-6 shooting, while forcing three turnovers with his defense. Of Carmelo's three makes, one came on a transition three pointer when Hill had already picked up the ball and was not on Anthony, and one came against Blake Griffin on a switch. With J.R. Smith and Amare Stoudemire struggling, the Knicks offense all game was completely dependent on either Anthony or Raymond Felton making something happen. While Hill was on the floor, Anthony's impact was reduced almost entirely.
And this is significant, because against teams like New York and Miami and Oklahoma City, your chances to win, particularly in a playoff series, may come down to finding an individual defender who can take on the challenge of slowing down a Carmelo Anthony or a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant. Hill can't do it night in and night out -- no one can -- and he can't take those guys completely out of a game -- no one can -- but he's a defensive weapon that in certain games against certain key opponents is going to be critical. That is the weapon I hoped the Clippers were getting when they signed Grant Hill, and that is what he was in this game.
So bring back the fun. The Clippers are back, and amazingly not too much worse off in the standings than when Paul went out. Yes, there's a gap between them and the Spurs and Thunder at the top of the West -- but there's also a gap back to the likes of the Nuggets, Grizzlies and Warriors. The Clippers are third in the west looking to move up, not too worried about looking at who's behind them now that they're healthy again. The Thunder and Spurs will surely go through a tough stretch similar to what the Clippers have just been through -- so L.A. is going to have a chance to make up ground at some point.
They head into the All Star break with a nasty series of four games in five days that began with today's win. But all four games are certainly winnable, so a hard push from now to Thursday will take the team into All Star weekend with plenty of momentum, and then the schedule turns favorable to the Clippers down the stretch. With Hill and Billups back, there's a good chance this team will be even better in March and April than they were in November and December -- and that is very good indeed.