I think there's a tendency to be perhaps a little hyper-critical of the winning team in a game like this one. The Los Angeles Clippers scored the first five points of the second quarter to establish a 23 point lead, and then proceeded to lose the remainder of the second quarter, the third and the fourth to a Houston Rockets team playing without their All Star and leading scorer James Harden. Why did they lose focus? Why did they allow the short-handed Rockets to hang around? Why was the second unit so ineffective? What was the deal with all the turnovers in the second half? This all seems very ominous, right?
Meh. Let's be clear. The Clippers held the lead for the final 45 minutes of this 48 minute game. They held a double digit lead for the final 39 minutes. The Rockets may have closed to within 11 a couple of times, but the Clippers always had an answer, which is what really matters. The final margin of ten came after a 6-0 Rockets run in the final 90 seconds of garbage time. The outcome was never seriously in doubt.
The Clippers' historic first quarter was so huge, so very impressive, that there absolutely had to be a letdown afterwards. It's not so easy to maintain laser focus with a 23 point lead 13 minutes into the game, with 51 points hanging on your side of the scoreboard, after a 46 point opening quarter that is the franchise's best in more than a quarter of a century. In a way, I fear those kinds of starts. NBA games are long, and after a red-hot start it can be very easy to have a letdown. Then, once things start moving the wrong direction, it can be very difficult to restart the engine.
All you have to do is think back to May 19, 2012, Game 3 of the Western Conference semi-finals against San Antonio. The Clippers had a 24 point lead early in the second quarter at 40-16 and everything was coming easy. Then they took their foot off the pedal, shifted into neutral, and when the things starting clicking for the Spurs, the Clippers could no longer get the car into gear. They just lost their way.
So 46-28 quarters are lots of fun, and I love watching the lobs flying and the three balls raining down, but if we're talking about winning games, I'd almost prefer a 28-22 lead after one. Solid. A good start. But there's work to be done and everyone knows it.
The second unit, which was so great early in the season and which really seemed to be back in the last couple of games, especially against New York, was truly dreadful in this one. Jamal Crawford was solid enough, but Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom combined for just four points on 2-9 shooting and lacked any offensive aggression at all. Matt Barnes was the only other reserve that did much, and if he hadn't found his three point shot late in the third, making three of them in a period of about four minutes, the game might have gotten much dicier. The plus/minus stats really tell the story though -- four of the five starters were +18 or better -- four of the five main reserves were -8 or worse.
But that kind of thing happens. It would be nice to imagine that professional athletes never lose focus, but we know it's not true. The second unit took the floor with an 18 point lead to start the second quarter, and their mindset seemed to be that the game was already over, even though it wasn't.
But what a first quarter it was. The Clippers made 17-22 field goal attempts, including 6-8 of their three pointers. That makes for an entire quarter in which their effective field goal percentage was over 90 percent, .909 to be exact. Wow. Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, the elder statesmen of the starting five, each nursing a sore back that kept them out of Monday's game in Philadelphia, combined for 24 first quarter points on 9-11 shooting and five threes. Again I say, wow. I guess their backs were feeling better.
And for the second game in a row the Clippers lived up to their Lob City nickname, putting up a week's worth of highlight jams in the first half alone. Paul's lob to DeAndre Jordan in the final minute of the first half was certainly the highest lob pass I've ever seen -- with poor Chandler Parsons back on a 3 on 1, Paul just skied the pass right in front of the rim and allowed DeAndre to go as high as he wanted to three it down -- which he did.
But perhaps the most encouraging outcome from this game was the play of Billups. In only his sixth game since rupturing his Achilles tendon over a year ago, he scored a season high 19 points on 6-9 shooting, making 4-7 threes and one deep two. He looks absolutely effortless shooting the three, and has now made 11-28 in six games, better than 39 percent. Billups and Butler will get plenty of open looks from beyond the arc playing with Paul and Griffin -- it makes a huge difference in the offense when those shots are falling, and Billups certainly looked like a major weapon tonight.
The win gives the Clippers a three game winning streak and moves them 21 games over .500. With Golden State limping into the All Star break on a five game losing streak, the Clippers are now six games up in the Pacific Division, cruising toward the franchise's first ever Division title. Denver has cooled off as well, losing their third straight Wednesday night on the heels of their nine game winning streak to fall 4.5 games behind the Clippers. After weathering the storm of essentially four weeks with Chris Paul either out of the lineup or limited when he did play, the Clippers find themselves closer to the second seed in the West (two and a half back of the Thunder) than to the fourth seed (three up on the Grizzlies). I'll take that.
A win Thursday night against the Lakers in the final NBA game prior to the All Star break will give the Clippers a four game winning streak heading into the break, with one of the league's most favorable schedules awaiting them on the other side of the weekend. A win combined with an Oklahoma City loss (entirely possible as the Thunder host the white-hot Miami Heat Thursday) would leave the Clippers just a game and a half back of the Thunder.
For the Houston perspective, be sure to visit The Dream Shake.