HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Chris Paul said it out loud to the Staples Center crowd late Wednesday night, loud enough for all of us thousands of miles away to hear every word.
“This is special team,” he said of the Clippers, while Blake Griffin held a mic of his own as the team greeted the crowd before their home-opening win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
A cynic might point out that similar words are spoken by team leaders at the start of home openers all around the league. But a realist, one without purple-and-gold tinted lenses, would see the validity in Paul’s words and recognizes that the All-Star point guard speaks the truth.
I’ve already gone on record with my prediction that Paul’s Clippers, and not the more celebrated Lakers, are the team from Los Angeles headed to the Western Conference finals. They might not be able to match the Lakers in star power, tradition or as a box office draw. What they do have, however, is the sort of talent, depth, chemistry and focus necessary to reach the conference finals.
While the Lakers find out exactly who and what they are … and the Oklahoma City Thunder retool after trading Kia Sixth Man of the Year James Harden …and the San Antonio Spurs try to pace themselves for yet another attempt at beating the clock and returning to the top … the underrated (yes, underrated) Clippers have nothing but opportunity staring them in the face.
And the Clippers are ready to pounce.
This assessment is less about what we’ve seen in the first 48 hours of the season and more about a belief that the Clippers, with arguably the deepest bench in the league, finally have the pieces needed to take over the No. 1 spot.
The Clippers were impressive in that win over the Grizzlies, with DeAndre Jordan serving as the early spark and Jamal Crawford putting in his opening bid for another Sixth Man of the Year honor with a game-high 29 points. Lamar Odom and Eric Bledsoe gave the Clippers an extra boost, too. In fact, every healthy member in the playing rotation went about the business of doing his job, helping the Clippers battle from a deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to a victory.
Crawford was particularly effective, giving the Grizzlies a dose of what O.J. Mayo did for them last season with a whirlwind opening performance, including a rainbow corner 3-pointer that helped salt the game away in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t have an answer for him,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins told reporters afterwards, a refrain you’ll hear often about Crawford and the Clippers if they stick to their scripts and get lucky on the injury front.
The Clippers don’t need any time to get comfortable with each other. There are no internal hurdles this time around, no adjustment period for Paul like the one he needed last season, and no lingering drama surrounding this group (coach Vinny Del Negro‘s hot seat has cooled considerably since last season).
Perhaps most important is that the Clippers will spend the entire season sharing a building with the team — the Lakers — under the most pressure in the league to perform. Those are expectations the Clippers don’t have to worry about.