HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — It’s been so long since the Clippers cashed in on their promise — or had promise to begin with — that sometimes even the smallest step gets magnified. Was Wednesday one of those times?
Yes, the Clippers finally beat a team of significance when they outlasted the Heat in overtime. It was a bigger game for the Clips than Miami, if only because Chris Paul and crew had something to prove, not only to the league and the starry crowd that limo’d in for the game, but to themselves. The season was rather mundane until now; they’d lost to the Spurs, Bulls and Blazers and desperately needed a pelt to put on the wall. Well, that stuffed LeBron head and D-Wade scalp will look awfully nice in the den.
Of course, the Clippers’ work is only beginning. They’ll fill out the month with games just as meaty, starting Saturday with the Lakers, and then: Dallas, Wolves, Lakers again, Nuggets and Oklahoma City. We’ll all have a better idea of this team then, and how much Paul’s addition is helping. You see, that’s the challenge of trying to elevate yourself from decent team to contending team. That stairwell can be quite oily. One big win doesn’t make for a celebration. Maybe in the past, it did. Not now. The Clippers are beyond that, or so it seems, all because of CP3 came along and raised expectations.
I’d say the Clippers are definitely intriguing, and in spurts do have the look of greatness, but they still need to demonstrate it over a longer stretch. And they’ll have that chance. In the meantime, they can’t afford many if any sloppy losing streaks if they want to be taken seriously by the basketball world. Good teams find a way, even when they don’t look too sharp.
Anyway, Bill Plascke of The Los Angeles Times is pretty much a believer:
Lob City became Mob City.
The Clippers hugged, their fans bounced, the rafters roared, the entire Staples Center danced as one late Wednesday in a coming-out party for the city’s hottest new star.
Lordy, what a show.
In what could mark their first official step toward their promise of greatness, the Clippers grunted and ground and eventually soared atop their expectations in a 95-89 victory over a Miami Heat team that is considered the NBA’s best.
“Very intense,” said Blake Griffin afterward with a very relieved, very sweaty grin.
Intense and immense, the game featured an extended Heat lead until the Clippers fought back late and withstood repeated attacks from the great LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to force an extra period.
At which point, the Clippers potential reached reality in one giant alley-oop of an overtime, the white-shirted, wild-eyed home team holding the Heat to one-for-10 shooting while finishing them with an array of jumpers, layups, and DeAndre Jordan‘s clinching dunk.
Of course there would be a clinching dunk.
Have the Clippers turned the corner on their defensive issues? A bit, perhaps, though there’s almost certain to be some recidivism going forward. The combination of raw youth and creaky veterans virtually guarantees as much. And that’s probably why the Clippers remain cautious about setting goals.
“I think if you get too caught up in the results, I think you forget about the process,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Then I think you miss things and I don’t think you can be as good as you can be if you do it that way.”
The Clippers want to see some refinement before they figure out if they’re a title-chasing team in earnest, or merely consolidating in preparation for something bigger next season when they’ll have a season under the belt and the opportunity to address the deficiencies on their roster.
Across the way outside the Miami locker room, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra explained the hazards of setting wholesale goals, especially with a newly assembled team, an exercise he’s well-versed in.
“The thing that nobody wants to hear is that it takes time in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Even if you can put a lot of talent and a lot of pieces that you think naturally fit together, it takes time. Very rarely in this league are you able to put together a team with a lot of new players and to immediately succeed. [The Clippers] have done very well. They’ve gotten off to a great start.”
What will be interesting is how the Clippers proceed with mostly a point-guard loaded backcourt. It makes for great lob passing, no doubt; Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have the highlights to show for it. But can the Clippers defend well enough with Paul, Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams getting most of the minutes?
Also, don’t forget how the Clippers’ nucleus is still fairly new. And when you consider most of the new bodies are handling the ball, well, it’s a process. Paul and Billups are still getting to know Griffin and Jordan and the rest, in terms of how and when to deliver the ball. Because Paul and Billups are savvy and happen to be pretty good, they’ll master this quicker than most. Still, the process continues. Look how long it took for the Big Three in Miami to mesh last year. Remember how the sky fell when the Heat started 9-8?
Looking ahead, here’s what would make for a smooth transition for the Clippers from curiosity to contender:
They beat the Lakers at Staples Center in a few days and stake their claim for Occupy LA. Cause you know Kobe Bryant has had it up to here with talk of the Clippers being the best team in town.
Jordan begins to develop an offensive game outside the paint, because you can’t survive on dunks alone. This might not totally happen this season; still, the big fella could use a baby hook or mid-range jumper to make him less predictable. Griffin was much the same as a rookie, and now he’s beginning to stretch his range a bit.
Caron Butler keeps knocking down open jumpers. He’ll have a few of those every game, because of the Clippers’ inside game and also because of two point guards on the floor.
Finally: defense, more like the kind the Clippers played against Miami, which shot four-for-12 in the fourth quarter.
“It’s about winning these games and winning the so-called smaller games because that’s what puts your franchise in a winning position.”
Get it? Just win, Clippers, and those pre-season projections of possible greatness just might be realized. Thursday was a step in that direction, but as we know, the finish line is well in the distance, even in a shortened season.