When you play 82 regular season basketball games in seven months, some games are bound to just be a bit weird. This was one of those games. As recently as Tuesday, this early-season tilt versus the presumptive Western Conference favorites was viewed as a measuring stick for a Clippers team still mid-reboot. Then it was announced Kendrick Perkins wouldn’t play and LA’s gunners missed a bunch of open shots. And then the kerfuffle happened, leading to the ejection of key players for both teams (admittedly, Serge Ibaka is a bigger, burlier key for Oklahoma City than Matt Barnes is for Los Angeles). At that point, either team would have a legitimate reason to write off the result.
Except, championship caliber teams don’t just shrug and say, “The ball came out flat. It got weird. Forget this, let’s go to Lure” (or wherever NBA talent goes after midnight). That certainly wasn’t the reaction shown by the Thunder and Clippers last night. After halftime, Los Angeles flashed the kind of grit and fight often associated with Doc Rivers-coached teams, ultimately pulling ahead behind a strong defensive effort. But even when Staples Center started rocking, with the Clippers snagging loose balls and performing their trademarked, beautiful, front-running choreography, Oklahoma City didn’t blanch. Rather, the Thunder, a team working itself into shape in its own right, demonstrated why they remain favorites: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are as proud as they are good. And they’re really, really good.
Afterwards, Doc said the game revealed a lot about his team. Specifically, “that we can fight back.” In that sense, maybe last night did provide a useful measurement for LA’s progress after all. In the midst of adversity, when the shots aren’t falling, untested and unorthodox lineups are thrust to the fore (paging Paul, Collison, Crawford, Bullock and Hollins), and the other team wants the win as badly as you, you can learn about yourself, what you’re made of. Last night showed that these Clippers are made of something real – they’re made of mettle, so to speak – a reality they’re coming to understand just as we are. Will that be enough to carry them through the Western Conference and into the Finals? No, they’re going to need more defense for that. But fortitude is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for success. In winning weird against a great team, LA found a little fortitude.
Three Random Notes:
1. Last night, Jamal Crawford took over 14th place on the all-time three-point shooting list. In his wake: Glen Rice, who made 1,559 career threes. The next four players on the list are all active, but winding down: Jason Richardson, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Steve Nash. By late next season, Crawford might surpass them all, meaning he’d be a top-10 three-point shooter all-time. Huh.
2. It feels like the Thunder have been holding auditions for the “Featured Center” role since the days of Robert Swift. Byron, né B.J., Mullens even passed through for a spell. OKC may have found its guy in Steven Adams. He’s mobile, he’s got touch and he acts like I imagine an angular, seven-foot Kiwi would act: he doesn’t care, and he’s not caught up in your love affair. (Shout out to all my Kiwis!)
3. Blake Griffin racked up 22 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals versus OKC. On the season, he’s averaging 22.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals. What’s more, Griffin is shooting 39.6-percent from mid-range, 8-24 feet from the hoop. It’s early, but Blake looks more confident, and he’s making jumpshots at a higher rate than ever before. It’s just one more step in his evolution as a player.