In NBA's new world order, first-place Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers are among league's elites.
By A.J. PerezFoxSports
Blake Griffin admits the standards the Los Angeles Clippers exceeded again on Friday night are anything but lofty.
“We want to have a record-breaking season, which is not saying a lot,” said Griffin, spoken like a Clipper who has endured the down years but in reality only has one full season to his credit. “There haven’t been a lot of records set here. I’m just being honest.”
Those words came minutes after Griffin scrambled on his knees to get the ball to Chris Paul — the most prized import in the franchise’s mediocre history — for the game-winning fade-away in a 78-77 decision against the Philadelphia 76ers at Well Fargo Center.
The Clippers, who have never won a division title, now are 2 1/2 games up on the Lakers in the Pacific.
And it’s not just the fact they’re winning, but it’s how. While Griffin and Paul — the team’s two All-Star entrants — may have been involved in the game-winning sequence, it was defense and rebounding that allowed the Clippers to hang in despite their lowest-scoring output of the season.
“No question about it, they were getting frustrated,” said Clippers forward Reggie Evans, who had 10 boards and a steal in 19 minutes of play. “The fans were getting frustrated. The coach was getting frustrated. I just did what I had to do. It’s just all about being aggressive and beating them to the punch.”
There’s a certain swagger the Clippers have developed in a couple of short months since the end of the lockout, and Friday’s game was another chance to compare themselves against one of the league’s best.
The Sixers are atop the Atlantic Division, and under second-year coach Doug Collins, the team has raised expectations nearly as much around Broad Street as the Clippers have in Southern California.
Granted, the Sixers have been to the playoffs nine times since the 1998-99 season compared to the Clippers’ one trip. But in a town that’s seen every other pro team at least make it to the league championship since 2005, the Sixers haven’t made it out of the first round since Allen Iverson ran the show in 2002-03.
Collins saw much worse times here in his playing days in the since-demolished Spectrum.
“I came here in 1973, and the Flyers were the only good team,” Collins said.
“The Eagles were like 2-and-whatever, the Sixers won nine (games) the previous season and the Phillies won-50-something with Steve Carlton winning half of those. I go back to a quote from (Phillies shortstop) Jimmy Rollins I read not long ago when he said in 2001 he walked around with his hat pulled down over his eyes because the team was losing."
There’s none of that now. The team has increasingly seen more fan interest, and the Sixers sold out for the second time this season Friday, which also is a nod to the excitement the Clippers generate around the league.
“I know what this is all about,” Collins said. “Our fans have been great this year. They’re coming and enjoyed our team and our team has responded very well.”
This was the first time Philly has lost back-to-back games this season, which can be expected when your highest scorer for the game (Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala) nets 12 points. The Clippers' stinginess is at least partially a reaction to the loss of guard Chauncey Billips, who ruptured his Achilles tendon Monday. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro experimented some Friday, going with a larger lineup at times.
We are not near complete,” Del Negro said. “This is just the first step of a long process for sure. There are a lot of things we have to get better at.
"We’ve only been together for a couple of months. There’s been a lot of adversity, but we’ve continued to improve. If we maintain that intensity, play physical and go after it on defense like we did tonight, we are going to be fine.”
The Clippers aren’t even halfway through the shortened 66-game schedule and already the rebranding process at least could be complete.
“We’re definitely trying to change the stigma,” said Clippers forward Kenyon Martin, who signed as a free agent last week. “You can’t be a doormat all the time. That’s what they were, year in and year out. The Clippers were a joke. I think that has changed. People know what we bring to the table.”
The Clippers and the Sixers — two all-of-a-sudden first-place teams — are known quantities by this point. They’re at a level they haven’t been in a long time, if ever in the case of the Clips.