LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers scratched and clawed their way to a 121-120 win over the Portland Trail Blazers Monday night—and broke Lawler's Law along the way—but it was Blake Griffin who bore the brunt of the abuse.
After skipping Saturday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans to rest a sore knee, Griffin suffered a scratch under his eye and a bloody lip courtesy of Mason Plumlee's elbow in the fourth quarter.
"I'm very self-conscious right now," Griffin quipped, noting how swollen and numb his stitched upper lip was.
Despite ending their four-game home stand with consecutive victories, the Clippers have every reason to feel anxious about where they stand as they get ready to hit the road again.
The 133-105 weekend win over the Pelicans came with Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore all in street clothes. The Clippers can take some pride in sweeping the season series from a Blazers team that knocked them out of the 2016 playoffs, though they've clearly slipped some since smashing Portland by 31 points in early November.
That outstanding effort came during a three-week stretch that opened the 2016-17 season and had the Clippers looking like the top team in the league. They rushed out to an NBA-best 14-2 record behind a stifling defense and an offense that was slowly but surely coming online, before stumbling to five losses in seven games—including a 17-point pounding at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
"We understand how we started off the season and we've been down and now we're trying to pick it back up," Chris Paul said.
Paul has done his part to light the way for L.A. He followed up his first 20-point, 20-assist (and no-turnover) game against New Orleans with another stellar effort (21 points, 14 assists, two turnovers) at Portland's expense.
Griffin was plenty productive against the Blazers' bigs as well, though his season-long struggles around the rim persisted.
According to NBA.com, Griffin has converted 53.4 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the basket this season—down from 65 percent in 2015-16. Against Portland, he missed a handful of shots within that range but managed to contribute 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists all the same.
"I know Blake will finish," head coach Doc Rivers said. "He finishes most of the time. The last couple games, he has not."
Paul and Griffin putting up big numbers against middling competition is par for the Clippers' course. The same goes for DeAndre Jordan cleaning the glass, J.J. Redick coming off curls, Jamal Crawford scoring in bunches and Marreese Speights morphing into Mo Buckets at warp speed.
Real progress looks more like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hitting two corner threes and hounding Damian Lillard early, and Raymond Felton—fresh off a two-game absence to attend to a family emergency on the East Coast—smothering him and C.J. McCollum down the stretch.
"He was fantastic tonight," Rivers said of Felton. "His ball pressure, even before the ball got across half court, was absolutely wonderful for us. It's why we won."
Why the Clippers might keep winning, though, comes down to factors far outside the confines of Staples Center.
The stint at home opened up a heap of much-needed practice time for the Clippers. L.A. went nearly six weeks without a full session—between Halloween weekend and the return from a six-game road trip that stretched into early December. During that time, the Clippers had to use pregame shootarounds to work through what few kinks they could.
"We have had some slippage," Griffin admitted. "I think that's kind of to be expected when you don't practice for the first month of the season."
Nowhere has that decline been clearer than on the defensive end. According to NBA.com, the Clippers still sport a top-four defense overall but have been a bottom-10 team on that end since mid-November. Giving up triple-digit points to the Pelicans (on 48.2 percent shooting) and Trail Blazers (on 50.6 percent shooting) hasn't helped their standing.
Getting back to the dominance that defined the start of the season will require more than a few good days at the team's training facility in Playa Vista. The Clippers need to hold fast to whatever gains they made during this brief return to their own turf as they head back out on the road.
Fortunately for L.A., the competition ahead isn't exactly stiff. The Clippers' upcoming swing through the Southeast Division will pit them against three teams (the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat and Washington Wizards) with a combined record of 27-46.
In theory, the Clippers figure to pad their record and jump back into the thick of the race for one of the West's top two seeds. In practice...well, dig back no further than L.A.'s last road trip when it dropped three straight to the Detroit Pistons (without Reggie Jackson), the Indiana Pacers (sans Paul George) and the Brooklyn Nets (absent any recognizable names beyond Brook Lopez).
"The bottom line is squeezing out wins any way you can," Rivers said. "If you play 10 bad games in a row and win all 10, as a coach, you're going to dissect it and you're going to look at some of the things you have to improve, but you'll always take the wins."
Even if they come with questions and caveats, bumps and bruises, blood and stitches.
"Just because we've had a couple games where it's been that way doesn't mean we're good," Griffin said. "We've got to keep working. We've got to keep improving. We've got to keep being better, bringing better intensity defensively, especially on the road."
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and accurate as of games played on Dec. 12, 2016.