The Clippers are peaking at the right time (that’s so Chris Paul) as they head towards the final stretch of the regular season. Our guy Michael Shagrin takes a look at what happened in last night’s blowout victory.
Coming off the first five game winning streak since 2006, the Clippers were as hungry on both ends of the court tonight as they had been all season. During the undefeated home stand, the Clippers scrapped together victories in spite their failing to overcome the deficiencies that have plagued the team all season. In just the last two games, the Clippers demonstrated swiss cheese interior defense against Utah, and a reliance on the CP3 Houdini act against a Portland squad missing LaMarcus Aldridge.
After the media made a fuss about the coaching status of Vinny del Negro, the completion of the “historic” five game winning streak had the dual impact of extinguishing the fire under Vinny’s seat as well as allowing Clipper Nation to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The three game losing streak, on the back-to-back-to-back away games immediately preceding the home stand seemed to signal that the Clippers were still the Clippers of yesteryear regardless of whether the Association’s best point guard was leading the team. When “five in a row” came and went, the mindset controlling the expectations for the Clippers reverted back to those generally reserved for the Clippers. “We just won five games in a row, so what if we lose our next one on the road versus the defending champs?”
I certainly was not expecting a win from this team tonight, mostly because my anxiety watching these Clippers stems from the sense of complacency that seems to grip them when everything starts going their way. Rarely can a streaking Clippers team wield a dagger to put an opponent away for good. I expected an extrapolation of this in-game phenomenon to apply to the broader arc of the Clippers season. I rationalized this doubt by thinking a demoralizing loss in Dallas could be the spark that gets the Clippers going for their upcoming home game against the Lakers.
No Vegas for me right now because, boy, was I wrong (I did, on the other hand, choose Kentucky to take home the title, but then again, who didn’t?). Led by Chris Paul’s militant precision in running the offense and Randy Foye’s barrage of triples, the Clippers halted another team-specific, road losing streak (the Clips hadn’t won in Dallas in their 10 previous appearances dating back to 2006) while also extending their winning streak to six, the longest string of victories since before this Clipper fan was born.
There was a controlled urgency to tonight’s performance that is usually reserved only for Chris Paul. On lucky nights, that competitiveness will spread amongst the team leading to night’s that demonstrate the Clippers’ capacity as an offensive juggernaut. But tonight, this intensity infected just about every Clipper on both sides of the floor–offense and defense. The closeouts were swift. The rotations crisp. When Clippers big men went up for rebounds, they would channel the fierce aggression of Reggie Evans. Even though they were on the road against the defending champs, had created some separation from the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race, and had just won five games in a row, there was none of the Clippers’ characteristic nonchalance. They were playing like they had something to lose.
The free-flowing, unselfish offensive current that led to Randy Foye’s career night (he knocked down 8 three-pointers, tying Quentin Richardson’s franchise record for most threes in a game) also produced the type of balanced bench production that is required for winning without Mo Williams and will likely be integral to any sort of playoff-run when Mo returns. As has been noted by many a Clipper commentators, Vinny’s rotations sometimes lack any rhyme or reason. He has reacted in kind, as reported by the LA Times, that he would experiment with leaving a starter in to run with the bench unit. He implemented such a strategy in the beginning of the second quarter, leaving Blake Griffin in, and whadda ya know? It worked.
Led by Eric Bledsoe’s lightning-quick dashes up the court, the Clippers second-unit stayed energized by running the transition game, turning defense into offense. With the help of six steals, the Clippers’ bench didn’t fall into their usual stupor, holding onto a comfortable cushion before passing the torch back to the starters in the waning minutes of the first half. Though the up-tempo game advantaged the Clippers against the aging Mavericks, the second unit still was in desperate need of some scoring during the normally torturous second quarter, and seven points from Nick Young in a span of 75 seconds was enough to keep Dallas at arm’s length.
(Quick sidebar: I’ve been trying to figure out a cartoon character that parallels Bledsoe’s speed, strength, agility, and slight recklessness because the combination is frankly a little whacky… or looney… and I finally landed on the right one. Sonic the Hedgehog. Tell me you can’t see Eric Bledsoe successfully scaling one of those inverted loops.)
Tonight’s win was a milestone not merely because this supposedly cursed franchise is performing better than it has in more than two decades but because these Clippers showed a fire in them that has historically been earmarked exclusively for Chris Paul during the final stretch of the fourth quarter. But in Dallas, the Clippers as a unit upped the ante. The Mavericks were surprised and I was surprised, but it would be all too presumptuous to think the Lakers are going to be surprised on Wednesday. Stay tuned.