Clippers rise to the occasion in crunch time
LOS ANGELES — The Clippers didn’t play a perfect game Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets, but as coach Vinny Del Negro said afterward, “We played probably the best in the biggest moments.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes.
The Clippers made defensive stops when they needed them. They got a critical steal and basket by Jamal Crawford in the final minute. They got important free throws from Chris Paul down the stretch. They got a much-needed energy boost from Eric Bledsoe in his return from a calf injury.
All of that helped the Clippers to a 101-95 win over the Nets at Staples Center, giving them consecutive victories for the first time this month.
It also helped them stay a half game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA’s Western Conference and a half game behind the Denver Nuggets, who currently hold down the third spot behind San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
But really, is anybody counting wins at this point?
“I can’t tell you our record right now,” Paul said. “Once you get to a certain point, you just play the games. As long as you’re playing the right way, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It doesn’t matter who you match up against in the playoffs.”
It might not matter now, but it will in a couple of weeks. And right now, the Clippers are desperate to keep winning games so they receive a favorable seeding when the postseason begins next month.
If their win over the Nets did anything, it put them in a positive frame of mind before they embark on a four-game road trip next week. They had to work hard to come back from an eight-point deficit in the third quarter, but at the decisive moments, they made plays.
Bledsoe’s intensity paid off when he scrambled for a loose ball on the court, scrambled to his feet and drove for a basket that gave the Clippers an 81-80 lead with 8:02 left in the game, their first lead since late in the second quarter.
He showed no signs of the strained left calf that forced him to miss five games, saying, “It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was an injury where I had to rest so I could come back and play like I did today.”
Crawford’s steal of a Deron Williams pass and his subsequent drive for a slam dunk pushed the Clippers’ lead to 94-90 with 48 seconds remaining. Crawford is known for his scoring, not his defense, but he came up with an important turnover when it was needed most.
“He made a big play tonight,” Del Negro said, “probably the biggest play of the night.”
Paul scored 11 of the Clippers’ last 13 points, seven coming on free throws. He scored 23 of his 29 points in the second half and added 11 assists.
Center DeAndre Jordan was 6 for 6 shooting and had 13 points and 12 rebounds. In March, Jordan has converted 41 of 50 field-goal attempts (80 percent), the highest percentage in the league for a calendar month since 1985-86.
“We need him big time,” Paul said. “I think he knows that, and he needs to know that. He’s a game-changer.”
The Clippers had already clinched a playoff spot Friday night without having to lace up their sneakers. The Utah Jazz’ overtime loss to San Antonio guaranteed the Clippers a postseason berth, only the third time in franchise history they have qualified in consecutive seasons.
But there are more important goals for them, even if Paul believes it’s not yet time to focus on their playoff position.
“Not right now,” he said. “It’s too close. It’s going to change every day for the next two weeks.
“As long as you win your games, it doesn’t matter. And as long as you play the right way, it doesn’t matter.”
Soon enough, it will.