LOS ANGELES – One night the Clippers look like they can beat anyone. The next night they barely resemble a playoff team.
They’re up, then down, then up again. They can be unbeatable, then unimpressive.
So who are these guys?
“That’s a good question,” Chris Paul said Wednesday night. “We’re trying to figure that out. We can’t be a team that plays to the level of our competition.”
They can’t and they shouldn’t be. But two nights after they lacked intensity and lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Clippers bounced back in a very big way.
It’s too early in the season to have a signature win, but their 106-84 victory over the San Antonio Spurs – the team that swept them from the NBA playoffs last spring – was undeniably their most impressive performance of the season. They were energetic, active and in sync, played strong defense and got strong games from Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Paul and the bench.
“It was our defense that triggered everything for us tonight,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “I thought we did a better job getting to the basketball and had a much better first quarter. The Spurs are so efficient that if you give them any daylight, they get in the middle of the court. We did a much better job limiting them as much as possible.”
This was a victory the Clippers had every right to celebrate. The Spurs won four in a row in last season’s Western Conference semifinals and brought in a 115-30 all-time record against the Clippers. But Wednesday’s win marked the largest margin of victory in the series for LA.
“We still remember what they did to us a couple of months ago (in the playoffs), so that was an extra motivation,” Jordan said.
Jordan had his best game of the season, getting up and down the court and playing with energy on defense. He had 20 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals, and when the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili fouled Paul hard in the fourth quarter, knocking the Clippers point guard to the floor, Jordan was the first player to step in and defend his teammate.
“This is our family in here,” Jordan said, “so we’re going to protect our teammates at all costs. It can be from Chris to Blake to whomever. We’re going to be there for each other.”
What the Clippers need is for Jordan to be there on offense and defense, every game. He knows it, they know it.
“He’s got to do that,” Del Negro said. “There’s no ifs. He has to do that. He has to bring that energy every game no matter who we’re playing, how physical the game is, how many fouls he has. He’s got to control the paint as best he can for us.”
Jordan made 10 of 12 shots, but his defense helped the Clippers shut down the Spurs’ big scorers. None of San Antonio’s players had more than eight shots, and the Spurs shot 41 percent from the field.
“We tell DJ he’s a huge piece of this team,” Paul said. “I’ve said this before: When I go out of the game, we come in with Eric Bledsoe, so there’s no drop-off. When DJ goes off, we lose a lot. We lose his energy on both the offensive end and defensive end. He’s one of our most valuable players, someone we need on the court.”
Griffin had 22 points and 10 rebounds, Paul contributed 12 assists, and the bench came up big again: Bledsoe had 15 point and five assists, Matt Barnes added 12 points and Jamal Crawford had 10.
Best of all, the Clippers showed some bounce-back ability after losing two in a row to Golden State and the Cavs.
“You can’t get up for big teams and take others for granted,” Barnes said. “We proved if you don’t show up to play, you can get beat by anybody. We have to stay consistent. We can’t be like a roller-coaster with so many ups and downs.”
That’s their objective now – to reach a consistent level and stay there.