Wednesday NBA Roundup: Clippers Already Contenders, Even Without Blake Griffin

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 3, 2016

March 2, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) controls the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers played well enough without Blake Griffin to fool the rest of us for a while, and their 103-98 comeback win against the Oklahoma City Thunder showed they may have even fooled themselves.

Remember, before the stunning victory, Chris Paul told Sam Amick of USA Today: "We can't win a championship without Blake. We're playing for a championship, and there's no championship without Blake Griffin."

The thinking behind Paul's comments is hard to deny. Griffin is a superstar—one good enough to dominate a first-round series against the then-defending champion San Antonio Spurs last year. It's perfectly reasonable to argue L.A.'s ceiling is somewhere in the sub-contender range without him.

It's just that so much of what the Clips have done in his absence suggests otherwise.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 22:  Austin Rivers #25 and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers sit on the bench during the game against the Phoenix Suns at STAPLES Center on February 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The win against OKC improved the Clippers' record since Griffin went down (originally with a quad injury, later exacerbated by a broken hand that will also cost him a four-game suspension once he's healthy) to 23-7. That mark, along with the league's third-best net rating of plus-9.7 from Christmas to March 1, gave rise to the narrative that L.A. might actually be better without Griffin.

And after watching the Clippers engineer a 26-5 fourth-quarter run that turned a sure blowout loss into a "wait, did that really just happen?" victory, that angle feels even more plausible. Maybe Paul is wrong. Maybe the Clippers really can join that top tier of contenders whether or not Griffin's around. At the very least, we should acknowledge they're on par with the Thunder, who've now lost five of their last seven games and rank squarely in the middle of the pack defensively.

Oklahoma City's late-game offense devolved into a turnover-filled, stagnant mess that raised so many of those old, familiar questions about the team's tactics and execution. The contrast to L.A.'s Paul-orchestrated sets was stark down the stretch. There are some problems here, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Thunder have lost 9 games this season when leading entering the 4th quarter (only 76ers have more)

It'd be a mistake to panic about OKC. Durant scored 30 and could have had plenty more if his three-ball had fallen (he was just 3-of-12 from deep), and Russell Westbrook chipped in 24. Those two give the Thunder a chance against anyone.

But if they're part of that top-end group of real contenders, and we're measuring the Clips against them... it's at least a close question.

It's true L.A. has struggled mightily against the league's elite, posting a record of just 2-6 against the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Thunder—the consensus title threats. But this is a team with offensive and defensive ratings in the top 10, per NBA.com. There's balance here, and those stats typically signal legitimate contention.

Still, if you're a pessimist, you've got some evidence to support the idea the Clips are a notch below the elites sans Griffin or not. They collapsed against the Houston Rockets in last year's playoffs, Paul's postseason record is unimpressive and there's always that looming concern that the Clippers' whining and ref-baiting will come back to bite them.

But here's the thing: The Clippers are going to get Griffin back. However well they've played without him, having a battle-tested star in the rotation makes them better. And what if we've been mistaking correlation for causation in Griffin's absence? What if L.A. hasn't gotten better because Griffin is out, but has instead improved despite missing its second-best player?

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  DeAndre Jordan #6, Chris Paul #3 and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers gather during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: U
Harry How/Getty Images
K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop

Rose: "This is foreign ground to a lot of us in this locker room."

There are definitely some strategic advantages to Paul playing with just one big man in the middle and three shooters spaced around the floor. But adding Griffin to the mix as a secondary playmaker and dominant scorer has to be a positive if Doc Rivers manages the reintegration correctly.

Suppose he gets creative.

There's no law against continuing to let Paul run the show with DeAndre Jordan in the middle and three shooters on the perimeter. And there's no mandate against using Griffin to lead the second unit. He's been an offensive hub without Paul before, and we all know how problematic L.A.'s bench has been in past failed postseason runs. The Clips could two-birds-one-stone this thing and really supercharge their title chances if they're willing to think outside the box.

And at the very least, in the name of all that's holy, we must all agree that Griffin returning means no more Jeff Green (0-of-7 against the Thunder, forever terrible), which is a massive plus.

We've seen enough to know the Clippers are excellent without Griffin, maybe even good enough to compete with the league's very best occasionally.

With him, it's not crazy to think they could reach another level altogether—one occupied by a select few squads in search of a ring.

The Bulls Aren't the Bulls Anymore

If you're into bright sides, at least the Chicago Bulls didn't give up 129 points and allow the opposition to shoot 67.5 percent from the field like they did against the Miami Heat on Tuesday. They did, unfortunately, get blown out by the lottery-bound Orlando Magic. And after the 102-89 result, it's starting to look like Chicago will be right there with them.

It feels weird, per Derrick Rose's postgame comments to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Josh Robbins @JoshuaBRobbins

Mario Hezonja's career-high point total is 17. He has 14 points with 9:00 to go in the third quarter.

The Bulls surrendered at least 100 points for the 15th consecutive game, and if you thought that horrendous defeat against Miami would serve as motivation, well...it didn't.

Chicago fell behind big in the early going, generously permitting the Magic (who are hardly an offensive powerhouse) access to easy looks. Just about everyone on Orlando got what they wanted, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop

Dunleavy, Moore and Gasol just looked at each other after that uncontested dunk allowed.

Mario Hezonja would finish with 21 points, while Aaron Gordon continued to post big numbers in the post-Tobias Harris era with 13 points, 15 rebounds and three assists.

The Bulls are banged up. They started Cameron Bairstow, E'Twaun Moore and Mike Dunleavy. Justin Holiday played 28 minutes. There are excuses to be made. But there's more going on here, per Johnson:

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Chicago is headed for a transition with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol hitting free agency this summer, not to mention Derrick Rose starting the final year of his deal. And sweeping change has never felt more necessary.

The Celtics Are Approaching Elite Status

Jay King @ByJayKing

Isaiah Thomas: "Teams, players, the NBA, they still don't respect us."

Not because a 116-93 win over a red-hot Portland Trail Blazers team pushed the Boston Celtics' home winning streak to 12. And not because they absolutely ran the surging Blazers off the floor with a 33-9 third-quarter run.

No, the Celtics' brush up against true superpower status has to do with their postgame reactions, per Jay King of MassLive.com:

Jay King @ByJayKing

The Celtics think they deserve more acclaim. Jared Sullinger: "We'll constantly keep flying under the radar."

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

See that? Boston has officially gotten good enough to play the "nobody respects us card." And you only get to do that if you're really good and you know it. When's the last time you heard a losing team—or even a half-decent team—toss out the under-the-radar trope?

The Warriors do it. The Spurs live it. Most good teams adopt this mindset at some point—usually after they've already convinced themselves they're worth respecting. The odd thing is, by the time that happens, the rest of the league also respects them, and the cries for acknowledgment are usually imaginary.

Whatever the psychology, Boston is showing traits you'd expect to see in a title threat. The Celtics aren't there yet, but they've got an important element nailed down already.

Dwane Casey Tried His Best

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

It's not uncommon for a coach to avoid excuses when his team loses a game because of a short-handed roster. Advertising dependence on a single player isn't a great look...even when it's obviously true.

The Toronto Raptors lost to the Detroit Pistons without Kyle Lowry on Sunday. So when head coach Dwane Casey told reporters: "To be a good team in this league, you have to be able to handle success, and we just embarrassed ourselves trying to do that. ... That has nothing to do with Kyle," everyone knew he was just staying in character.

Flash-forward to Wednesday as a rested Lowry pumped in 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting to dispatch the Utah Jazz, and the real reason Toronto fell to Detroit became even more obvious. Lowry, in most years not involving a Stephen Curry takeover, would be a legitimate MVP candidate.

He's the reason Toronto is on pace to post its first 50-win season.

Casey can say what he wants, and there's something to be said for not letting the supporting cast off the hook. But we all know what really makes the Raptors run.

Quick! What's the Saddest Thing You've Ever Seen?

Justin Verrier @JustinVerrier

Norris Cole has six shots in six minutes and Perk got the start. Strap in, folks.

Because it wasn't sadder than this.

From the moment both teams took the floor in the Houston Rockets' 100-95 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, it was tough to figure out who was in a sorrier state.

The Pels had an early advantage in Monday's Sad Off by virtue of a starting lineup, including some genuine NBA misfits, per Justin Verrier of ESPN.com:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Spurs have clinched a playoff spot for the 19th straight season https://t.co/5exDGVcais

Dante Cunningham started too, playing well until he had to leave with a knee injury. Bonus sad points to New Orleans for losing its most effective player. Cunningham had 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting when he exited. Toss in the lost season, injuries up and down the roster, 22 turnovers and the general disappointment of Alvin Gentry's first year and you've got one lamentable team.

But the Rockets wouldn't bow out of the Sad Off so easily.

They started the day with news of Michael Beasley's imminent arrival, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, which will up their wacky left-hander quota to unprecedented levels. Houston then proceeded to let a decimated Pelicans team hang around (sad), turn the ball over 21 times times (sadder) and hit just 3-of-34 shots from deep (end of Old Yeller-level sad).

Bummers all around and, probably, nary a playoff berth between these two teams when all's said and done.

This is too dark. We need to move on.

The Spurs Are Unprofessional

Just look at this exhibitionist showboating*. Disgusting! Come on, guys. What's next, a dance routine? Upending the Gatorade bucket (which is filled with Ensure in this case) on Gregg Popovich?

Act like you've been there before.

The Spurs have, of course, been there before—"there" being the postseason. Their 97-81 win against the Detroit Pistons clinched the franchise's 19th consecutive playoff berth, which is basically unfathomable in the modern NBA. For reference. the Atlanta Hawks have the second-longest active run, and they've only made the last eight postseasons.

San Antonio also has 38 straight home wins to its credit—a ho-hum footnote in an absurd franchise history, per Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm:

It'll be interesting to see how the Spurs approach the remainder of their season. Some late slippage cost them playoff seeding a year ago, and it's still possible to make a push for the No. 1 seed. Any urgency at this point would cut against San Antonio's well-established emphasis on player preservation, though.

So even if it's tempting to say the Spurs should change things up and try to catch the Golden State Warriors, their long track record of success suggests they know what they're doing.

*No, that GIF isn't from Wednesday's game. But very little of this paragraph is serious anyway. Try to get past it.

The Future Is Here, And It's Pretty Fun

It's tempting to spend time on the Indiana Pacers avoiding a season-long four-game losing streak by beating the Milwaukee Bucks 104-99 on Wednesday. But we should have seen that coming; Indy has lost three in a row six different times this season, but never dropped that fourth one. Clearly, the Pacers draw the line at three straight losses.

And anyway, who cares what an early-March win over the Bucks means for Indiana's prospects when there's a basketball revolution going on?

Behold the future: Point Giannis!

That's a 6'11" (conservatively) human being running a pick-and-roll and later completing a Euro-step dunk—the rough equivalent of seeing two unicorns doing backflips on a hoverboard. This kind of stuff just doesn't happen. Or at least it didn't.

Now, with head coach Jason Kidd turning to Antetokounmpo as his primary ball-handler far more often, we're seeing some unprecedented stuff. Nobody knows where this is going, and it's true Milwaukee's results have been mixed lately (3-4 in its last seven games).

But at the low end of the possibility spectrum, this is going to keep the Bucks interesting in perpetuity. On the high end, it could make them a matchup nightmare the league hasn't seen before.

Time Travel Exists

How else do you explain Vince Carter doing this?

The Memphis Grizzlies beat the Sacramento Kings by a final of 104-98, and in keeping with the theme of totally unexpected developments (though nothing will top Carter reverse-dunking an alley-oop at age 39), the Grizz are a dozen games above .500.

Marc Gasol's broken foot was supposed to destroy their season, yet they've carried on, going 5-2 in his absence. The schedule has been exceptionally soft, but Memphis has banked enough wins to really fall apart down the stretch and still reach the playoffs. That's stunning.

Not "Vince Carter reverse dunk" stunning. But still stunning.

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