The Los Angeles Clippers used a huge first quarter from Blake Griffin to establish a big lead and more or less coasted from there to the victory, their sixth in seven games on their first big road trip of the season. Amazingly, after beginning the season 5-4 while losing three games at home and generally playing uninspired basketball, the Clippers are more or less right back where they should be, 11-5 after the first month of the season. And all it took was the best road trip in franchise history. (Never before has a Clippers/Braves team won six games on a single trip, let alone gone 6-1.)
For Clipper fans who dislike Griffin's evolution into a jump shooter, this game may present a problem. Because Griffin took -- and made -- a whole lot of jump shots in this one. He finished the game with 28 points on 13-18 shooting -- 7-10 on face up jumpers. Those makes included a step back three and a fadeaway from the foul line where he bobbled the ball but regained control, both of those coming deep in the shot clock. Say what you will about Blake's shot selection, and it's easy enough to say he is settling for the jumper too frequently. But it's indisputably a good thing that he's able to make shots late in clocks, giving the Clippers someone other than Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford to bail them out of tough spots.
The team continues to suffer through nervous moments almost every game. No sooner had they established a 20 point lead at 35-15 when the second unit gave up a 12-0 run that featured a spate of ugly turnovers to let the Jazz right back in the game. I'm not prepared to decree their early season demons exorcised until we see more of a killer instinct from this team -- they are letting teams hang around a little too much, even if they do continue to win the games they're supposed to.
Still, on both sides of the ball, the Clippers were a different team during this road trip than they were during their California-only first nine games. When the trip began, they were 13th in the league in offensive efficiency (which was particularly disappointing after the team led the league last season); they're now up to third. And while the defense still needs some work, they did improve from 23rd to 15th -- right around league average -- during the trip. More importantly, in stretches against both the Jazz and the Rockets in the last two games, the defense looked very, very good.
It certainly helps to just make shots. J.J. Redick has a true shooting percentage of 61 percent on the road compared to 53 percent at home. For Jamal Crawford, the difference is 70 percent versus 50 percent. And likewise Chris Paul and several others have made shots on the road trip that they were missing before. There were certainly early games when the team played poorly -- Chicago and Golden State stand out -- but there were also games when they played pretty well, but missed open shots. As one would expect, those open shots are now starting to fall.
As well as they've played, they still sit in seventh place in the West, where they only qualify as the fourth or fifth hottest team right now. But as we well know, it's a long season, and teams like the Warriors and Grizzlies will go through some rough patches at some point this year.
Was the road trip instrumental in their improved play? Did the team need to get away from the distraction of home to be able to focus on basketball? And if so, will they go right back to their distracted state now that they are returning home for 11 out of 17 in December? Or was the extended trip, with the accompanying bonding, a turning point that will have the team playing better regardless of the venue? We'll find out Monday when they host the Timberwolves in STAPLES Center.