There is no defined set of steps in an NBA team’s progress toward true, asterisk-free title contention.
But if there were, the Los Angeles Clippers might have ascended to a new one Monday: In matter-of-factly dispatching a Toronto Raptors team 123-115 (that needed the victory more than they did), the Clips added a new and impressive achievement to an early season already riddled with them.
Toronto, gutted by a controversial last-second loss to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, came in having dropped three of its previous four games. Defeats against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors on back-to-back nights last week sewed seeds of doubt about the Raptors’ status as serious threats in their conference. The slip against the Kings (the second time this year Sacramento got the best of the Raps) was salt in the wound.
The Clippers didn’t care about any of it, and now here we are:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Don’t look now, but the Clippers stand atop the NBA with their best start in franchise history. https://t.co/4Dg4jS8juf2016-11-22 06:11:48
L.A. rode Chris Paul’s continued production and ruthlessly competitive meanness, getting 26 points, 12 assists and three rebounds from its leader. And, as Danny Leroux of Real GM noted, Paul used every one of his 35 minutes to keep attacking...just like he always does:
Danny Leroux @DannyLeroux
Is there anything less surprising than Chris Paul sneaking a steal after the outcome is already decided?2016-11-22 06:12:41
With the Clippers on the warpath and Paul leading the charge, Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated reminded everyone that gambling hindsight can...well, can make you very regretful:
Ben Golliver @BenGolliver
Chris Paul at 33/1 odds for MVP back in October is looking pretty good right now...2016-11-22 06:18:28
DeAndre Jordan contributed 17 points and 15 rebounds, punctuating his evening with typical aerialism:
He also went 9-of-14 from the foul line, which Clippers PR revealed was his highest free-throw percentage in any career game with at least 10 attempts.
And Blake Griffin added 26 points, seven assists and seven rebounds while stabilizing the second unit when the Raptors made a list-ditch effort to get within four in the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t perfect, and L.A.’s unsustainably strong defense has already slipped to second in the league. Its five-man second unit had to be bailed out by the starters in this one, and we shouldn’t expect it to keep preserving leads going forward.
But the Clips just outclassed a talented and desperate team with deeper playoff experience than they have. We’re not at the quarter pole of the season yet, but that means something.
For Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, the upshot was pretty simple, per Golliver:
Ben Golliver @BenGolliver
Raptors coach Dwane Casey on the Clippers: "This is the best team in the league."2016-11-22 06:26:15
With the Clippers, though, regular-season success will always come with that familiar caveat: Yeah, great. Talk to me when they get out of the second round.
Los Angeles has produced some brilliant seasons in the Paul era, and even if this is shaping up to be the best yet, it won't mean much without a visit to the Western Conference Finals. Getting there will take more wins like this: Wins with stakes and emotion attached. Wins against teams with real resumes that need to beat you.
There's no such thing as a November victory providing playoff insight, but there were important elements in this one. For now, it's just more evidence that this year, something is different.
The Clippers now embark on a six-game road trip against a mostly soft schedule. But tucked in there toward the end, on Dec. 1, are the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Circle that one as the next opportunity for the Clippers to validate this remarkable season.
Warriors Going Up (on a Monday)
In a prime example of the pick-your-poison cruelties that the Golden State Warriors visit on opponents, JaVale McGee played a key role in deciding the Dubs' 120-83 walkover win against the Indiana Pacers on Monday.
Signed out of obscurity before the season, McGee was the first Golden State big off the bench. And just as they've done all season, the Warriors immediately began throwing him lobs.
Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News noted the trend just after Draymond Green flipped an alley-oop attempt to McGee at his earliest opportunity:
Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater
JaVale McGee has played a little more than 50 minutes this season and the Warriors have probably attempted 25+ lobs in his direction.2016-11-22 00:31:13
Stephen Curry found him moments later:
Golden State's end-of-bench flier had five points, three rebounds and a block in a 34-21 first quarter that effectively ended the game.
Indiana was playing without Paul George, Myles Turner or C.J. Miles, so the result was hardly ever in question. The method of destruction, though, was still surprising. History suggested it should have been Kevin Durant doing the demolition, per Warriors PR:
Warriors PR @WarriorsPR
Kevin Durant has scored 31.3 points per game against Indiana, his highest scoring average against any single opponent in his career.2016-11-21 23:18:25
But KD had just 14 points in 27 minutes as Golden State cruised.
McGee's ability to put space between the soles of his shoes and the floor differentiates him from starter Zaza Pachulia, and it's clear the rest of the Dubs appreciate the vertical threat their backup 5 represents. Andrew Bogut used to offer a terrific lob target, and you can sense the Warriors miss demoralizing opponents with that weapon.
The gaffes and goofs are going nowhere, and counting on him to execute a defensive scheme is dicey, but McGee also adds a dimension Golden State clearly appreciates.
Bradley Beal's Great Lengths Stave Off Greater Embarrassment
Bradley Beal's career-high 42 points fueled a 106-101 win in Washington, but things looked bleak for most of the way. For proof, check the Twitter feed of the Washington Post's Candace Buckner:
Candace Buckner @CandaceDBuckner
The #Wizards need a do-over to the season.2016-11-22 01:43:22
Candace Buckner @CandaceDBuckner
If Bradley Beal scores 42 points in a game and the #Wizards can not close out he 4-10 Suns at home?... yo, cancel Christmas.2016-11-22 02:21:17
The Wizards moved to 4-9 on the season, but they've fallen to Philadelphia and Miami during recent weeks. Those results, combined with Buckner's highly justifiable skepticism, suggest Washington is far from fixed.
One good way to reach a point where career-high scoring nights aren't required to beat the likes of the Suns? Stop giving up so many threes.
Coming in, Washington ranked 25th in the league, surrendering 27.9 deep attempts per game. Opponents had been converting them at 39.4 percent—the league's second-highest rate. Phoenix hit 11 of 27, a 40.7 percent clip, in the loss.
The win's nice, but there's work to do here.
Steve Clifford Should Have Saved His Speech
Hey, remember last week when Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford galvanized his sluggish squad with a stirring halftime tirade? And remember how it totally worked, and the Hornets surged back to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves?
Clifford could have used another gut-check shout-fest Monday, when the Memphis Grizzlies blasted off to a 24-point halftime advantage and rolled to a 105-90 victory.
The problem: We learned last time that Clifford keeps his high-volume monologues chambered for special occasions.
"He has said an NBA coach can really lose it at his team about five times a season before that becomes a detriment and the coach just gets tuned out," Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer explained.
"Clifford decided Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves would be one of those five halftimes, and he picked right."
The Grizzlies have been hot (they've won five straight), and with the way Mike Conley's been playing, Charlotte may have just found itself facing the wrong team at the wrong time. But this is now four losses in six games for the Hornets, who looked like the conference's second-best team 10 days ago.
If halftime speeches aren't the answer, Clifford had better find a way to get Marvin Williams going. Charlotte's key stretch 4 has been frigid during the team's recent struggles, shooting 7-of-38 over his last four games.
Also maybe stop letting Tony Allen dominate on offense:
Timberwolves Cannot Escape Karma
Jae Crowder only scored four points in the Boston Celtics' 99-93 comeback win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but I think we can all agree he was the reason for the result.
By narrowly avoiding (and then gently consoling) a courtside baby during a headlong foray into the stands, Crowder accumulated enough karmic points to assure a Celtics victory:
It was either that or yet another patented Timberwolves collapse—this one made all the more gut-wrenching because it came during the fourth quarter, rather than the third, which has been Minnesota's customary period for implosion.
The Timberwolves offense completely stalled, and the Celtics got behind Isaiah Thomas (29 points) for a 19-0 run during a 31-12 fourth-quarter deluge. Karl-Anthony Towns put up 27 points and 18 rebounds, but he also contributed to sequences like this, via CJ Fogler:
CJ Fogler @cjzero
This possession encapsulates what happens when the Wolves start to struggle https://t.co/aMM69WsiFt2016-11-22 03:24:04
Head coach Tom Thibodeau wasn't pleased afterward, telling reporters (via Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press):
Jon Krawczynski @APkrawczynski
Thibs: "We have to take a hard look at the decisions we made both offensively and defensively that caused us to lose the lead."2016-11-22 04:50:37
Yeah, and maybe kiss a few babies. Couldn't hurt, right?
Credit Boston for fighting back and trusting in the cosmic forces of universal balance, but, man, the Wolves have to figure out how to finish games.
It's About Time
The Orlando Magic remain on "Roundup Probation" for their general "unwatchability" (Hi there, season-high 24 turnovers!), so we'll keep this brief and non-Magic focused.
Giannis Antetokounmpo registered a triple-double with 21 points 10 assists, 10 rebounds, five steals and three blocks—a huge night in a 93-89 win that moved the Milwaukee Bucks to within one win of .500. But if you'd been betting before the season on some kind of over-under for how many games it would take Antetokounmpo to post a Russell Westbrook (which is what we should be calling triple-doubles), you would have gone under 13, right?
But then this:
Milwaukee Bucks @Bucks
.@Giannis_An34 is one of 3 players in NBA history to record a line of 21p, 10r, 10a, 5s & 3b (along with Olajuwon & Jordan). #OwnTheFuture https://t.co/zPswQ7tKLr2016-11-22 03:57:45
View it this way: Antetokounmpo hasn't posted quite as many do-it-all stat-stuffing evenings as expected, and Milwaukee's still sniffing around the break-even mark.
That's encouraging...because more outlandish box-score achievements are coming.
Break Up the Sixers
Yeah, the victories have come against a handful of the league's worst teams, but the Philadelphia 76ers have won three of their last four games.
The latest success came in the form of a 101-94 win at home against the Miami Heat—a game in which Joel Embiid scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds through 23 minutes. Sure, Hassan Whiteside churned out 32 points and 13 boards, but let's not get bogged down in the who-outplayed-whom details.
This fourth win of the season is a big deal for Philly, as laid out by this explanatory tweet from Derek Bodner of Philadelphia Magazine:
Derek Bodner @DerekBodnerNBA
It's the second time this calendar year that the #sixers picked up their 4th win of the season.2016-11-22 02:44:46
It may take you a second to unpack that, but it's pretty remarkable. Win No. 4 came on Jan. 4 last season.
Take it easy, Sixers. You don't want to shave down those lottery odds too much.
Detroit Has the Right Idea
The Houston Rockets are historically trigger-happy from long range, and they entered Monday's meeting with the Detroit Pistons sporting the highest number of three-point attempts per game we've ever seen.
So when Detroit held the Rockets to four triple tries during the first quarter, it was an achievement worth noting: Houston's 18-point output in that opening period was its lowest all year. The Pistons, trying desperately to end a three-game skid, were working smarter and harder.
But then Houston erupted in the second, managed to crank out 31 three-point attempts on the night and dodged a handful of fourth-quarter free-throw misses by James Harden to eke out the 99-96 win. It was a demoralizing result for the Pistons, who fell to 6-9 on the year.
Andre Drummond (6-of-18 from the field, 1-of-6 from the foul line) has to be better, and the Pistons need more consistent effort to keep Stan Van Gundy happy. But there's just something encouraging about the way they can show flashes of perfect game-planning and execution.
Call me crazy, but I'm still convinced the Pistons can sort this out and finish with more than last year's 44 wins.
Get Out of Here, Steph Curry
Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played Nov. 21.