In one sense, there's good reason for that. L.A. is clearly a notch below the NBA's four-team class of serious contenders: the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers. And it's also true that most of the attention the Clippers have drawn this season has come for the wrong reasons.
Blake Griffin punching out a trainer, incessant complaining, Hack-a-Jordan and increasingly crazy personnel moves culminating in a trade for Jeff Green—a guy who will be looking to extend his career-long streak of making teams worse when he's on the floor. Stuff like that.
Green is already 29, by the way. He is what he is.
Still, put all that aside, and you've got to give the Clips a little credit. This win ran their record since Christmas, Griffin's last game, to 20-6. And even if the schedule has been a little soft, and the Clippers haven't comported themselves well against the elites in that stretch (see: losses to the Dubs, Cavs, Celtics and Raptors), at least they beat the shorthanded Spurs.
And at least they've gotten further proof that Chris Paul, even at this latter stage of his career, can still carry a team for huge chunks of a season. He had 16 points and 14 assists in 27 easy minutes against Phoenix. And he did all the little things he usually does to get teammates involved—like finding Luc Mbah a Moute on this slick hammer action with J.J. Redick playing decoy:
DeAndre Jordan, who has also had the opportunity to expand his role a bit in Griffin's absence, finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
L.A.'s big man has even been experimenting with some intriguing additions to his offensive game, per ESPN.com's J.A. Adande:
When did DeAndre Jordan add these right-handed hook shots to the repertoire?— J.A. Adande (@jadande) February 23, 2016
Let it never be said Jordan is a lob-only scorer.
And you can't forget about Redick. He scored 19 points by halftime, just a deuce short of the Suns starters' combined total at that point. He concluded the evening with 22 points and is on pace to shatter his previous career mark for three-point accuracy in a season. Without qualification, Redick has never been better than he is right now.
I guess the point is the Clips are really good, and it's easy to lose sight of that amid the complaining, the circus of this season and the general sense that this core has already hit its ceiling. That last part is probably hardest to overcome. We've seen the Clippers fail enough in the past to expect it in the future, and maybe that's not fair.
Jamal Crawford seems to understand the stakes, suggesting it would be reasonable for management to entertain blowing up the team after another disappointing finish in comments to ESPN's Scoop Jackson: "If we don't win it this year...they have to consider it," he said. "Because that would be five years since Chris came. Blake's been here that long. A lot of teams don't get that kind of time."
If you have to make the case they're capable of being something more than a first- or second-round out—or at least that they're just not getting their due—remember that the Clippers beat the Spurs in the playoffs last season. And even if so many of their personnel moves have been questionable, it's fair to say they might be a little better on balance this time around. Paul Pierce should help them avoid the jitters that contributed to that disappointing series against the Houston Rockets last spring, for example.
And if you really want to go glass half-full, Griffin should be rested and motivated to atone for his rough year when it matters.
Golden State and San Antonio have made this a strange season in which we measure everyone against those two historically great outfits, mistakenly concluding that falling short of those unreasonable standards is the same thing as being objectively bad.
While it's true we'll have no choice but to measure L.A. against those teams (it'll have to beat them to advance in the postseason at some point), for now, we should probably just appreciate the Clips for what they are and acknowledge they've got a shot to be something more.
The Clippers aren't great, but they're good. And they're one of only a few with the potential to be great.
That's enough for now.
The NBA Schedule Begets Oddities
The Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers showed us weird stuff happens when a trap game meets a scheduled loss.
Having coughed up five straight games and recently (Sunday) surrendering 59 points to Anthony Davis, the last thing the Pistons needed to see on the slate was a meeting with the East-leading Cavs on Monday. The back end of a back-to-back set? Against the East's best team? With a hefty losing streak showing no signs of reversal? Foregone conclusion, right?
But wait: The Cavs were coming off a hugely inspiring blowout win on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The recipe for a letdown was there! Trap! Look out, LeBron!
This is the NBA equivalent of matter and anti-matter colliding. Though, fortunately, we got a surprising 96-88 Pistons win instead of a black hole. Clearly fatigued, LeBron James hit just 5-of-18 shots on the way to a dozen points. Kyrie Irving scored 30, but a balanced effort from Detroit, in which all five starters scored at least 14, points tipped things in the Pistons' favor.
One possible takeaway here is that anyone can beat anyone. Another is that Cleveland's supporting cast can lay a real egg once in a while. Tristan Thompson went scoreless in 21 minutes, and nobody outside the Cavs' Big 3 managed more than seven points. If you're looking for reasons to worry about the Cavaliers down the road, maybe focusing on role players who don't always stay focused after huge wins would be a good idea.
The Knicks Know What They're Doing
Down big and facing the certainty of a 12th loss in their last 14 games, the New York Knicks deployed their secret weapon.
Jimmer Fredette played less than two minutes in his Knicks debut, but his presence produced a buzz, and the one shot he hit (a three, of course) provided the perfect distraction for a Knicks season that is rapidly devolving. Nobody's suggesting we're in for a second season of Linsanity, but it was hard to deny the similar sideshow quality that accompanied Fredette's first on-court action, per NBA analyst Seth Rosenthal:
The Garden is giving a standing ovation in the final seconds of a 27-point blowout. Signing Jimmer was BRILLIANT— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) February 23, 2016
New York lost to the Toronto Raptors by a final of 122-95.
The Knicks have plenty of hope for the future in Kristaps Porzingis, but any postseason hopes a solid start might have kindled are extinguished now. And with interim head coach Kurt Rambis embroiling himself in distractions of the wrong sort, it's got to be nice for the Knicks to have Fredette around as a more pleasant diversion.
It's a little unseemly to patronize Fredette this way. He was cleaning up in the D-League, averaging 21.8 points and 4.8 assists on 40.5 percent shooting from long range. He earned his 10-day deal with New York. But if you think the Knicks aren't at least partially motivated by Fredette's steroidal effect on fan interest, you're fooling yourself.
Best case: Fredette plays well enough to stick around for the rest of the season and finally solidifies his spot in the league. Worst case: Knicks fans get reasons to cheer when they're down 27.
The Lakers Make Everyone Great
Giannis Antetokounmpo notched his first career triple-double in the Milwaukee Bucks' 108-101 win against the Los Angeles Lakers, who did a fine job bringing out the best in just about every Bucks player who saw the floor.
He finished with a remarkable 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, four blocks and three steals on 12-of-27 shooting. According to Basketball-Reference.com, we haven't seen a stat line like that since at least the 1983-84 season, which is as far back as the databases go.
Los Angeles' transition defense has been a joke all year, and its overall defensive rating of 109 ranks last in the league by a considerable margin, per NBA.com. Against the Bucks, L.A.'s failure to get back produced a rec-league atmosphere, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com:
Lakers’ transition D has been awful all season long, but tonight is woof.— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) February 23, 2016
Bucks now throwing alley-oops off the backboard to each other.
Milwaukee enjoyed it.
And Antetokounmpo wouldn't have reached his personal milestone if not for the exceptionally generous 58 points in the paint the Lakers allowed.
Head coach Byron Scott has cited intangibles like effort, heart and maturity when explaining his team's struggles this year. Perhaps that's fair, and it's also true the Lakers aren't blessed with many notable stoppers. But at some point, the scheme and coaching has to catch a little blame, too. If Scott can't get his team to do the basics—run back on defense, help and recover, keep penetration out of the middle—how much does the personnel really matter?
Go ahead and check the schedule to see when your favorite team plays the Lakers next. It's a guaranteed good time.
On Stephen Curry and Belief in the Absurd
While redefining shot-selection norms and altering the offensive landscape of the NBA, Stephen Curry has also been building credibility. For most players, shot attempts like this one would result in a benching and/or some seriously malicious looks from teammates:
But Curry has hit so many surreal heaves and off-balance prayers that the Golden State Warriors not only accept his shooting lunacy, they welcome it.
Watch that clip again and focus on Draymond Green at the bottom of the frame. Arms raised, practically testifying to Curry's silly greatness, Green is digging the scene from across the floor. He believes Curry will make what for most would be an un-attemptable shot.
He expects and believes in Curry's general absurdity. It's an offshoot of the explicit trust everyone has for the MVP, per head coach Steve Kerr's comments to Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Steve Kerr on Steph Curry's fourth quarter: "He senses when he needs to take over and when not … I mean, that’s what Steph does, right?”— Rusty Simmons (@Rusty_SFChron) February 23, 2016
Yahoo's Dan Devine captured the common viewer's reaction:
"Hahahahahahahaha,” he said at a Steph Curry shot for the millionth time— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 23, 2016
Steph finished with a game-high 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting.
Curry's unhinged confidence reflects his team's similarly assured demeanor. When you're 50-5, and you're led by a guy who truly believes he'll make everything he tosses up, it's easy to get a little complacent. And in the Warriors' 102-92 win, the Atlanta Hawks almost capitalized, erasing a 23-point deficit to actually take the lead in the fourth quarter.
Andrew Bogut swatted everything in sight down the stretch, Curry hit some nutty shots and the Dubs stomped out the rebellion.
Just like they always believed they would.
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Current through games played Feb. 22.