LOS ANGELES — The Clippers crossed off one major item from their to-do list, but there was hardly a sense of contentment late Wednesday night – and understandably so.
They became the first Clippers team in franchise history to win 50 games in a season, beating the Phoenix Suns 126-101 at Staples Center. Now they have an opportunity to clinch the Pacific Division title on Sunday when they play the Lakers.
There’s something delicious about that thought – beat the Lakers and deny their co-tenants a shot at making the playoffs. Hey, they might even want to hang their division banner somewhere in the vicinity of all those NBA championship banners the Lakers currently display on the Staples wall.
The Clippers could have clinched the division had the Golden State Warriors lost on Wednesday, but now they can do it against their downtown rivals.
“That’s definitely our motivation, to win the division,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said. “We want to win it on our own terms if at all possible.”
Of equal importance, the Clippers finally played with some much-needed passion after failing in their three previous attempts at win No. 50. They scored the first 15 points of the game, endured a second-quarter lull, then outscored the Suns 38-20 in the third.
They desperately needed a game like this, even though it was against a Suns team that has the worst record in the Western Conference. But it can also be a springboard going into their final six regular-season games.
“You should be playing your best basketball at the end of the season,” Blake Griffin said. “We haven’t really been doing that, so it’s good to get a win like this. But at the same time – no disrespect to Phoenix – we need to do this against the teams that are in the playoff hunt or are in the playoffs or teams that we might be playing.”
Paul and center DeAndre Jordan had double-doubles, Paul with 15 points and 12 assists and Jordan with 20 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes. It was Jordan’s first 20-point game since Nov. 18; of his 10 baskets, eight were dunks.
Backup center Ryan Hollins was ejected in the fourth quarter after a scuffle that began with Suns guard Goran Dragic and ended in a shoving match with Michael Beasley.
In going for a loose ball, Hollins put Dragic in a headlock at the 8-minute, 57-second mark. Jermaine O’Neal attempted to pull Hollins away, but as the group moved toward the Phoenix bench, Beasley pushed Hollins.
Hollins was assessed a flagrant 2 foul, and both he and Beasley were ejected.
“I definitely didn’t have intent to hurt, and I don’t think he did either,” Hollins said of Dragic.
It was a momentarily ugly scene, but it hardly put a damper on the Clippers’ rout, or on their enjoyment of 50 wins.
“In the 43 years that the team’s been around, getting to 50 wins is something special,” Paul said. “It’s nice to be a part of. It’s something that’s good for our team and for our fans.
“Ever since I got here, we’ve talked about setting a precedent. We expected to get at least 50 wins, and we expected more. It’s something to enjoy.”
If they want more, they’ll have a chance Sunday. For a team that has endured so much losing, what could be better than beating the Lakers with a title on the line?