As discussed in my previous post, I'm still holding off crowning my beloved Clippers as contenders until they show better consistency where winning games is concerned.
Due to the intensity of this season's condensed NBA schedule, the Clippers have won three games and lost one in a few short days since my "Managing Expectations" piece, which should put me at ease. I'm still coming around slowly. Problem is, the games they won were all hard-fought and still within ten points at the final buzzer, while the one they lost was out of reach early in the third quarter and ended with a 29-point spread.
The Good: Beating the Lakers on Saturday was huge.
The Clippers have been the long-forgotten second fiddle (even third, perhaps, when the WNBA's Sparks are winning) of Los Angeles pro ball since their arrival in 1984. Since the Staples Centre opened in 1999, they've had the unique distinction of being the second-best NBA team in their very own stadium. Imagine what it must feel like sharing your space with the league's most successful franchise while consistently reaffirming your title as the "Worst Franchise in Sports." The Lakers and Clippers do not share a locker room, but they do share parking lots and hallways, and are thus bound to cross paths with some regularity. Something tells me that players from the two teams would have had a hard time communicating due to the polarity of their roles.
I picture their past relationship playing out like a lunchroom scene from a bad teen movie, wherein Kobe and the "cool" kids in purple and gold harass and ostracize the nameless "losers" in blue and red sitting at the next table. Cherokee Parks, the goth, gets teased about his hair and tattoos. Marko Jaric, the foreign exchange student, can't defend himself with his limited English. Whang Zhizhi, the token Asian, tries desperately to ignore the tater-tots bouncing off the back of his head. Andre Miller, the quiet loner, gets robbed for his lunch money...daily. Michael Olowokandi, the uncoordinated tall kid, gets his pants pulled down in front of the popular girls...daily. And Eric Piatkowski, the Rooster...well, his nickname really is "The Rooster."
While the Lakers have been more associated with winning than Charlie Sheen, the Clippers have struggled just to earn anyone's professional respect since their founding in 1970. The Lakers are arguably the most successful NBA franchise in history, boasting 31 Conference Titles and 16 Championships. The Clippers have neither. As described in the opening paragraph of the Los Angeles Clippers' Wikipedia entry: "The team has only had six winning seasons in its entire history, and only two since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. They have never won a division title or gotten past the second round of the NBA playoffs." In other words, the Clippers are simply not good...ever.
Until now, or so it would seem.
The Clippers followed this past weekend's win over the Lakers by beating the lowly New Jersey Nets on Monday. The Nets are terrible, so the only significance of this win was that the Clips achieved it without star point guard and team leader Chris Paul, who's sitting out right now due to a pulled hamstring suffered towards the end of the Laker game. To those paying attention, the victory proved that the Clips could win without Paul. To those paying closer attention, they simply beat the Nets just like everyone else does when it's their turn.
The Bad: The loss to the Jazz on Tuesday was of epic proportions.
One can try to blame the Chris Paul injury, which left the Clippers without their new quarterback and hero. One could choose instead to blame the grueling, lockout-shortened schedule, which had the Clippers playing three games in three nights. One could even blame the challenging environment provided by the loyal and reputedly ruthless fans in Utah, where the Clippers have not won a game since 2003 and are 2-43 over their past 45 visits. But the real blame has to fall on the Clippers players and coaches themselves, who didn't appear to notice they were involved in an NBA game until it was too late.
The Clippers came out of the gates apathetic and unprepared. They missed seven of their first eight shots, allowing the Jazz to jump out to a 13-2 lead within minutes. The game never really got much closer the rest of the way, especially in the second half when both teams sat their starters to let the rookies and role-players get some burn. Even then, the Jazz reserves took it to the Clips and stretched the already gaping lead. The 108-79 final score was so extreme it's probably best forgotten.
And it would seem as though the Clippers may have done just that.
The Upset: The Clips take down the champs.
As Bob Marley's Redemption Song played in the ears of Clipper fans everywhere (that being parts of the Staples Centre and my living room), Chauncey Billups calmly drained a game-winning three-pointer to give the Clips a much-needed win over the defending NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. In a back-and-forth game that saw team saviour Chris Paul still on the bench in (ridiculously expensive) street clothes while trade-bait Mo Williams went off for 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting, the Clippers emerged victorious in a true test of wills. This was a big win due in part to the Mavericks current (although potentially fading) status as Champions, but more so due to the Clippers strong play down the stretch. Closing out games is what separates the men from the boys in professional sports, and the Clippers played like men tonight.
After Dallas' Jason Terry hit a huge three-pointer with only seconds remaining in the game, it looked as though the Clippers had missed out on a great opportunity on their home court. As Terry's shot went through the net, the Clips on the court could be seen pointing fingers and arguing about who'd missed their defensive assignment. The younger players looked dejected heading for the subsequent timeout - hands down, shoulders slumped, eyes to the floor. But this is why the Clippers went after a player like Billups, an NBA Champion and Finals MVP himself in 2004, this offseason. He's a winner. He's a veteran. He's seen it all in his fourteen years in the league and does not back down from dare-to-be-great moments. He's cool, calm, collected, and clutch. He's "Mr. Big Shot!"
Chauncey Billups was recently named one of the most underrated offseason acquisitions in the NBA's annual GM survey, and tonight's game exemplifies why. When Chris Paul is out with an injury, Billups is more than capable as his replacement. He's been a star in the league for the better part of a decade and could start at point guard for most NBA teams, including the New York Knicks, who let him and his contract go prior to start of the season to make room for the long arm and longer salary of Tyson Chandler, only to find themselves with shoot-first and miss-most rookie Iman Shumpert running their offense...but I digress. Billups is born for games like tonight's. He is made for moments like these. He's the anti-Lebron. On a team suddenly full of stars, "Mr. Big Shot" doesn't care about who gets the most shine. He cares about winning. He simply goes about his business, making smart plays on both ends of the court until the big shot comes along. Then he takes it. And makes it. And gets back on defense.
Because that's what winners do.