In the latest reminder that the line between contender and pretender status is still awfully blurry in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers went into the Moda Center and came out with a 100-94 win that snapped the Portland Trail Blazers' four-game winning streak.
Before tipoff, all signs pointed to a Portland win.
LaMarcus Aldridge loomed as a matchup nightmare, a walking amalgamation of basketball talent specifically designed to exploit the Clips' key weaknesses: lack of interior defense and front-line depth. Synergy Sports Tech used stats to illustrate just how much of a nightmare Aldridge was:
He was probably the last guy L.A. wanted to see. And as expected, Aldridge got everything he wanted against the Clips, posting a game-high 37 points that exceeded the combined scoring output of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan by two.
No combination of Clipper defenders could handle Aldridge, and when Spencer Hawes checked in off the bench, things got particularly ugly.
Fortunately for the clips, Portland's bench wasn't a factor outside of Meyers Leonard, who contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds. The Clippers reserves were collectively weak as well, but Jamal Crawford did what he does best: score, often and late.
His 25 points made up L.A.'s entire bench-scoring output, but his fourth-quarter heaves fell often enough to offset Damian Lillard's 12-point final stanza—a late surge absolutely everyone saw coming. Both ESPN.com's J.A. Adande and ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton joined the Lillard round-table discussion:
It says something that we've gone this far without mentioning Chris Paul, who seemed to take the Lillard challenge personally. He scored 23 points and handed out 10 assists, while combining with his bigs to limit Lillard's access to the lane on pick-and-pops. For good measure, he drew a key fourth-quarter foul on Wesley Matthews by hurling his shoulder directly into Matthews' sternum in the backcourt.
In other words, it was a vintage CP3 effort—in terms of both statistical production and dirty tricks.
Despite the impressive statement win, the Clippers remain a team with real flaws. Their paint protection has been horrible; ahead of the Portland game, opponents had connected on 62.5 percent of their shots inside the restricted area, the fifth-worst mark in the league, per NBA.com.
Moreover, L.A.'s depth has been wanting all season. And with a hard cap that severely limits its roster flexibility, it has been scrounging around the scrap heap for help.
Ultimately, it's hard to get behind the idea that the Clips are a better team than the Blazers in a vacuum. Deep down, it certainly feels like there's a significant divide between the two in terms of total top-down quality. But it's games like this that prove even the seemingly vulnerable clubs in the bottom half of the playoff ladder are still dangerous.
Perhaps we'll look back at this game and remember it as the moment when the Clips found their stride and regained the legitimate contender status they had a year ago. Or maybe it's just another entry in the growing tome on the historically absurd depth in the West.
Around the Association
Spurs Spoil Lance's Return
Lance Stephenson returned to the floor for the Charlotte Hornets after a 14-game absence due to a pelvic injury, but his eight points off the bench weren't enough to overcome Manu Ginobili's 27 in a 98-93 San Antonio Spurs win.
Charlotte was remarkably streaky without Stephenson, winning four straight immediately after he went down, then losing five in a row and then winning five more in succession. On balance, the Hornets made up ground on a playoff spot without Stephenson, but you'd think they might prefer a bit more stability going forward.
We'll see if Lance can provide it.
P.J. Hairston was in particular need of steadying on Wednesday. He stumbled a good 15 feet while turning in the early front-runner for "flop of the year."
The bar has been set, folks. Every actor from here on out is competing against Hairston. May the best flop win.
Expect the Unexpected in Orlando
The Orlando Magic came into their Wednesday matchup with the Houston Rockets toting the league's third-worst offensive rating, per NBA.com. Faced with the Rockets' second-ranked defense, it seemed certain Orlando would struggle to score.
The Magic hung 120 points on Houston in a seven-point win, led by Victor Oladipo's 32 on just 19 shots. Nikola Vucevic stayed hot, pumping in 25 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Most impressive: Orlando finished this game, pulling away late in the fourth quarter and putting an exclamation point on the proceedings with a wicked 360 slam from Oladipo.
A recent column from Grantland's Zach Lowe asked "What is Orlando Trying to Do?" We got a glimpse of its aspirations in this one.
The Nets Are Selling Low
Apparently insensitive to the reports from Bloomberg News' Scott Soshnick that Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is looking to sell the team, Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol set about devaluing the Russian billionaire's unwanted asset.
Memphis cruised into the Barclays Center and made the Nets look bad with a comfortable 103-92 win. Zach Randolph led all participants with 20 points and 14 rebounds, new Grizzly Jeff Green scored 10 in his debut, and Gasol piled up highlights like this:
It was a rough one for the Nets, a team struggling for direction and facing a brutal upcoming schedule, per Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game:
A few more efforts like this and Prokhorov may have to pay somebody to take this team.
Resurrection Is Tiring
The Detroit Pistons' remarkable leap since waiving Josh Smith has, apparently, taken a toll. They fell to the New Orleans Pelicans by a final of 105-94 on Wednesday, a defeat fueled mainly by fatigue, noted Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:
To their credit, the Pistons fought back from a 22-point halftime deficit, winning both the third and fourth quarters. But the hole was too deep, and other than a brief third-period outburst from Brandon Jennings, who led Detroit with 19 points, nobody could muster the energy to score.
If any team has earned an off night, it's the Pistons—who'd won nine of their last 10 before falling to New Orleans, vaulting from 5-23 to within just two games of a playoff spot.
The resurrection looks primed to continue, though, as Detroit's next eight games will come against Eastern Conference foes.
Even When He Takes It Easy, DeMar DeRozan Is Pretty Good
In the second notable return from injury of the night, DeMar DeRozan rejoined the Toronto Raptors after missing six weeks with a groin injury. He started, played 29 minutes and led the Raps with 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting.
Toronto coasted past the visiting Philadelphia 76ers by a final of 100-84, despite 29 points, seven rebounds and four assists from Michael Carter-Williams.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was pleased with DeRozan's comeback, particularly considering the shooting guard's measured approach, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN:
Struggling to defend and in desperate want of DeRozan's secondary scoring, the Raps sorely needed their shooting guard back in the fold.
Washington Owns Chicago
Derrick Rose found his perimeter stroke, hitting six threes in nine attempts on his way to 32 points, but his long-range accuracy wasn't enough to hold off a balanced attack from the Washington Wizards.
All five Wiz starters notched double figures, and Washington took a 105-99 decision from the Chicago Bulls. The result was part of a remarkable trend, as noted by ESPN Stats & Info:
Rose has been broke from long range all season, and he was on pace to post the lowest three-point field-goal percentage of any player attempting at least five triples per game in NBA history. So any step forward in that regard is a plus.
And, of course, Paul Pierce did what he always does—and what Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau expected, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
A playoff series between these two teams is pretty likely, and it would appear the Wizards have a significant edge in any head-to-head matchup.
Atlanta Has Arrived
Forget leading the Eastern Conference. Forget 10 straight wins. Forget a 31-8 record.
The Atlanta Hawks officially proved their status as league elites by sitting out healthy starters Kyle Korver and Al Horford in a 105-91 win over the Boston Celtics. You don't do that unless you're intensely confident in your system and good enough to know the long game matters more than a single contest.
It all worked out, as Jeff Teague got busy on the Celtics defense for 22 points, highlighted by a wicked crossover:
After the game, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said what everybody who'd been watching already knew, per Jay King of MassLive.com:
Also, Kent Bazemore had some open-court fun:
The Hawks are flying high, and it now appears they can easily win games even when their wings are clipped. That's bad news for an Eastern Conference looking softer by the minute.
We Need More Gallinari in Our Lives
Danilo Gallinari is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a torn meniscus, which is good.
But we may not get to hear him step in and call Denver Nuggets games in Italian if he's back on the floor, which is bad.
For my money, every highlight sounds better when you're not sure what's being said.
There Is Nothing New to Say About Golden State
The Golden State Warriors smashed the Miami Heat by a final score of 104-89, riding hot shooting, stifling defense and a bench good enough to start for half the league.
Swap out opponent and score and you could use that sentence for most of the Dubs' 31 wins this season. ESPN's Ethan Strauss was left speechless by the performance of the "Wadeless Miami" squad:
Led by Stephen Curry's 32 points and seven made triples, Golden State registered 29 assists on 38 field goals, while turning the ball over just 13 times. The Heat, meanwhile, couldn't muster enough offensive variety to compete with Dwyane Wade (hamstring) out.
Chris Bosh led Miami with 26 points.
Golden State is now an NBA-best 31-5 and has won 15 straight at home. It's currently on an eight-game streak of double-digit wins. The list could go on...
Top dogs until proven otherwise, the Warriors look utterly unstoppable.