I don't know about you guys, but I missed this Clippers team. You know, the one that won road games, that played big against good teams and embarrassed bad ones. During the four weeks that Chris Paul was hurt, aside from the first couple of games where adrenaline may have carried them to easy wins, we really hadn't seen anything like this. Now, it's not exactly a news flash that the Clippers are better with Chris Paul, that he's pretty important to the team. But seeing them dismantle the Knicks in New York and then utterly obliterate the Sixers in Philadelphia really brings it home. When Paul is playing and the team is clicking, things can get just nasty.
This game was not nearly as close as the final margin of 17 would indicate. The Sixers won the fourth quarter 31-19 making a bunch of long jump shots in a full 12 minutes of garbage time. The Clippers led by as many as 32 early in the fourth. Philadelphia coach Doug Collins, who has always stressed defense first, was completely beside himself at his team during the first 37 minutes of basketball that allowed the game to get so out of hand. The third quarter turned into something of a layup line for the Clippers, which of course in the case of the Clippers means a series of highlight reel dunks. In fact, we may have witnessed the NBA's first ever four point, all dunk possession, as Blake Griffin was fouled on a ridiculous left handed hammer jam, and then DeAndre Jordan cleaned up his free throw miss with a two-handed follow jam. Moments later Jordan followed a missed Paul three with a follow jam which started from half court as Paul was shooting. Somewhere along the lines the Philadelphia faithful stopped booing their own team and started cheering the playground exploits of the Clippers.
The usually stingy Philadelphia defense was picked apart by the Clippers, allowing them to get pretty much whatever shot they wanted, but they also made those shots. Paul was 9-11, 8-8 on his two point attempts. Jamal Crawford was 8-10 with three three pointers, his final miss coming on a pure heat check fading away in the corner with a hand in his face. Paul and Crawford combined to score 41 points on 21 shots, while making only three free throws. That's just nuts.
The Clippers did all of this damage with two starters sitting out, as both Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups took the night off with sore backs. The last four weeks serve to demonstrate a truism about depth. The Clippers clearly have very good depth, which can pretty easily absorb the loss of a Billups or a Butler. Willie Green, who would not have been off the bench until the fourth quarter had Billups been healthy, got the call just before game time that he was starting, and the Clippers didn't miss a beat. But the loss of a Chris Paul or a Blake Griffin is a different story. Those guys are difference-makers, and you can't just absorb the loss of a difference-maker.
We knew that the 7-9 record the Clippers posted from the Orlando game in which Paul was hurt through his first game back against Miami was not an accurate reflection of this team. But at the same time, it was enough to sow a little doubt about just how good they really were -- perhaps that 17 game winning streak was a little more flukey than we realized, maybe the perimeter defense or the lack of outside shooting was a bigger problem than we realized. But getting two impressive road wins the instant Paul returned to form goes a long way towards quieting those doubts. Chris Paul is really good. He's super important to the team. Without him they're not that great, but with him they are. It's not exactly rocket science as it turns out.
And as Ralph Lawler said during the broadcast, the Clippers will feel like they're running down hill the rest of the season. With this eight game roadie out of the way, the team has now played 25 home games and 29 road games. That leaves 16 of their final 28 at home, and 17 of them in STAPLES Center including the road game against the Lakers this Thursday. The have one nasty four games in five nights trip to Texas in late March, but that's the only time they play more than two road games in succession the rest of the season. And while they still have a back-to-back this Wednesday and Thursday before the All Star break, their 26 games after the break is the fewest in the league.
If they keep playing like they have been they'll take a four game winning streak into All Star weekend, and will be rested and well-positioned to make a run for a higher playoff seed after the break.