A 113-94 beatdown of the defending champion Cavaliers was certainly one way for the Los Angeles Clippers to bounce back from a double-overtime loss to the lowly Brooklyn Nets. And in the same way that defeat exposed the Clippers at their very worst, Thursday night's win in Cleveland showed this team at its very best — a real threat to a seemingly inevitable Warriors-Cavs Finals rematch.
The blowout win wasn't always pretty, unfortunately. If you tuned in for tip-off, you know the first quarter brought with it a cacophony of whistles from the officials. For that, we can largely blame Blake Griffin, who's playing the very best basketball of his life.
Over a sixty-second stretch in the opening frame, Griffin drew three fouls against the Cavs, earning two trips to the free-throw line. That's kind of been his thing this season, with the Clippers forward averaging the second-most FTAs per 36 minutes in his career. For good measure, Griffin is making a career-best 77.4 percent of his free throws.
The better he gets, the more he's forcing opponents to choose between practically tackling him on his way to the rim or giving up a demoralizing dunk. Want to hang back and dare him to make plays for others? No problem; Griffin is an outstanding (yet underrated) passer, as he demonstrated against Cleveland with 11 assists to go along with 13 points and five rebounds.
Maybe pump the brakes on those 3-pointers, though, Blake. Griffin's taking one 3 per game but making just 22 percent of them. Meanwhile, J.J. Redick continues to get buckets from deep, knocking down 4-of-6 triples for 23 points in Thursday's win, bringing his season average to over 45 percent on 3s for the second consecutive season. When an opponent tries to stop L.A.'s “Big Three,” Redick is there to make them pay — over and over again.
It's that consistency that makes the Clippers who they are. They've turned years of playing together into the kind of chemistry most franchises can only dream about. And for better and for worse, that continuity comes from Chris Paul, the on-court extension of Doc Rivers' particular approach to coaching. Against the Cavs, Paul was at his very best, subtly leaving his mark on every possession on both ends of the floor while hardly filling up the box score, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and nine assists.
More importantly, CP3 set the tone after a disastrous night earlier this week in Brooklyn. While you can never expect the Clippers to stay completely silent when it comes to the refs, the team was on its best behavior in Cleveland on Thursday. They whined, of course. They pleaded their cases. They swore they were incapable of committing fouls. But they did it with a modicum of respect, all as they kept their focus on the real task at hand: throttling the Cavs.
And above all, there was DeAndre Jordan.
Jordan's effect on the Clippers defense has been an open question for several years now. At the team's best, the perimeter defenders funnel ball-handlers straight into Jordan, who prevents them from even thinking about taking a shot anywhere close to the rim. At the team's worst, he's constantly trying to clean up for mistakes — both his and others' — which leaves the Clippers scrambling and shaking their heads as the other team gets an easy basket.
This season, there are no such questions. L.A. is second in the NBA in defensive rating, and Jordan is the biggest reason. He gave the Cavs second thoughts time and again on Thursday, spurring the Clips to an impressive 19-point win.
Whether this is who the Clippers really are, or whether they're the undisciplined squad we saw against Brooklyn, or, most likely, whether they're somewhere in the middle — an extraordinarily talented team with a unique mix of issues — there's no denying how impressive this team can be at its best. In Cleveland, the Clippers served notice that they're still title contenders.