LOS ANGELES — "The gold standard."
That's how Doc Rivers referred to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday evening, even before his Los Angeles Clippers took care of the defending Western Conference champions at Staples Center in a 115-92 romp.
It was the sort of game that the Clips would've lost 9.9 times out of 10 in the past, and not just because of the team's embarrassing history prior to the dawn of the Blake Griffin-Chris Paul era. This was L.A.'s first time playing at home since Dec. 1, and came on the heels of a seven-game road trip where they went a middling 4-3.
"It’s a tough one for us, coming back and playing them on the first day. We’d like to thank everyone with the league for that," Doc said in jest during his pregame presser. "But it is what it is. San Antonio has those during the year as well. They seem to find a way to win them, so we have to find a way."
Indeed, the Clippers will have to if they hope to achieve the same gold standard set by Gregg Popovich's Spurs (who are now 19-5 after having their four-game winning streak snapped) since Tim Duncan came onto the scene in 1997.
Duncan was his usual, age-defying self on Monday night. The 37-year-old future Hall-of-Famer tallied 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes while taking Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to school on more than one occasion—on both ends of the floor.
Not that Timmy was entirely his old gold-standard self. He was on the wrong end of a number of the baskets that comprised Blake's 27-point night—the scoring portion of which was completed after his eight-point third quarter. Griffin had his way against the Spurs' single coverage more often than not, emboldened in part by his relatively sharp free-throw shooting (11-of-15 from the line).
"Being in the paint and really attacking, you almost get fouled 90 percent of the time," an exhausted Griffin said after the game. "Not worrying about going to the free throw line and really making them pay makes people think twice about just taking a foul here or there. It allows the game to be less slow and physical."
So does L.A.'s constant desire to push the ball up the floor with athletes like Griffin and Jordan to finish. The Clips piled up 18 points in transition against the Spurs.
Albeit it came against a Spurs squad that wasn't exactly its gold-standard self. Tony Parker left the game in the third quarter with a right shin contusion, leaving San Antonio without its best (and most important) player down the stretch. Without Parker, Chris Paul was free to roam, as his final line (23 points on 8-of-13 shooting, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals in 36 minutes) would suggest.
But that needn't take away too much from what the Clippers accomplished. They shared the ball on offense and, more importantly, hustled on defense, rotating out to San Antonio's fleet of three-point shooters to limit the NBA's third-best three-point shooting team to just 33.3 percent (6-of-18) from beyond the arc.
The Clippers' hustle shone through in the second half during a 19-0 spurt. It showed again at the end of the third, as L.A. closed out with six straight points, and in the fourth, when the Clips turned a four-point nail-biter into a 23-point blowout with a flurry of free throws and threes—capped by Jamal Crawford's 33-footer for the final score.
All told, the Clippers finished with a whopping 37 points off 22 Spurs turnovers, many of which were the result of L.A.'s frantic effort to jump into passing lanes and gum up San Antonio's usually free-flowing offense.
It was the sort of effort that L.A.'s lacked at times through the first quarter of the 2013-14 NBA season, one that was indicative of a team that is not only buying what Doc is selling, but putting it into practice.
It' not unlike the Spurs, who've run a tight ship on Popovich's watch for the better part of two decades.
"Pop’s the best there’s ever been at making you buy into their system," Rivers said about his coaching counterpart, with whom he worked when Doc was an assistant, and Pop was the GM, with the Spurs in the mid-'90s. "He changes his system, but you’re going to buy into it or you’re not going to play."
That's the kind of buy-in that the Clips will need to compete with the Spurs and the rest of the West's best—not just this week or this month or this year, but over the long haul.
That is also what it's going to take for the Clippers to truly aspire to the "gold standard" that Rivers mentioned. One win does not an arrival declare, not even one as emphatic as that which L.A. registered at San Antonio's expense.
"I want to win the game, and a single game means a lot when you play a great team like San Antonio," Doc added during his postgame presser. "But after the game, it is one of 82. You never get too excited about measuring that in the regular season."
Paul, clearly weary from his travels, echoed his coach's sentiments, saying after the win, "It’s a good win for us, but we’ll look at the film and we’ve got to get past it. This wasn’t the championship or anything like that, but another good win for us coming off the road trip."
Comments like these get to the heart of what the "gold standard" is all about. You don't ascribe any more meaning to one win than you would another. Rather, you expect to win them all and, regardless of the result, you move onto the next one, looking to get better every game.
The Clippers haven't reached that level quite yet. They're fourth in the Western Conference, just a half-game ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings. For all their talent and expectations, this Clippers team hasn't achieved anything that an elite team would accomplish.
Unless, of course, you count a Pacific Division crown as something more than a feather in the proverbial cap.
But they're getting closer, little by little. We'll know better what this team is made of—gold or otherwise—come the spring.
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