The Houston Rockets, winners of seven of their last 10 contests (including a huge road win against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night), arrived at Staples minus James Harden, who turned his ankle in that same game. Without Harden’s explosive scoring and the Rockets playing the second road game of a back to back, the Clippers would’ve had to suffer a major hangover returning from their long “Grammy” road trip to lose. Luckily, the Clippers came out hot and cruised to a 106-96 win that wasn’t as close as that score indicates and are now on a three game winning streak. They could make it four with a win over the Lakers tomorrow night. Here are five takeaways from the win:
An almost historic first quarter.
The Clippers played an almost perfect first 12 minutes, scoring 46 points and coming within a point of their best quarter since arriving in Los Angeles (they scored 47 against San Antonio back in 1986). They shot a blistering 70%, forced 7 turnovers, and filled up the highlight shows with a crazy series of alley-oop dunks. Chris Paul was his cold-blooded best and carved up one of the NBA’s worst defenses with six assists. Caron Butler went for 17 points and Clippers only missed a single shot at the seven minute mark.
Welcome back, Chauncey Billups.
So THIS is what the Clippers true starting lineup looks like. As pure a shooter as any the game has ever seen, Billups scored 19 points in only 20 minutes of playing time, displaying a beautiful shooting touch from outside while knocking down four 3-pointers. The Clippers utilized Billups as both shooting guard and alternated him at point with Chris Paul, causing several mismatches as the Rockets tried to figure out where to pick their poison. The versatility Billups provides is almost wholly unique to the Clippers and the scary aspect to all this is that Billups is not at 100% quite yet. Once he is back in full “game shape” the Clippers will have an almost unstoppable guard tandem.
Blake Griffin is now truly elite.
In a season full of superlatives, Griffin continues to progress and improve in almost every area. His free throw shooting is now near 70%, which has rewarded him with the ball in crucial end-game situations. He can shoot with both hands and on both sides of the basket, has shown a consistent mid-range jump shot to keep defenders from overplaying his paths to the hoop, and he plays every possession at full throttle. On one play, Griffin dove into the Rocket’s bench for a loose ball with his team up 15 points. At this point in his career, Griffin may be the best power forward in the entire league.
Strong start, cruise control finish.
After their 46 point first quarter, it looked like the Clippers were on their way to at least 120 points and a huge margin of victory. After two quarters, they led by 22 and were in complete control before the Rockets surged to cut the lead down to 11 early in the 4th quarter. The vaunted Clippers bench was lacking in energy and couldn’t generate many points until Matt Barnes found his stroke on a couple of 3-pointers. Still, though the lead shrunk, there was never any indication that the Rockets could threaten the outcome and, Harden or no, the Rockets are not a bad team and played hard until the final buzzer.
Healthy roster plus favorable schedule equals top Western Conference seeding?
The Clippers have now won three in a row and could make it four with a win over the unpredictable Lakers on Thursday night. At that point, there will be 26 games remaining in their season, with a staggering 16 of those contests at home. Fourteen of their final opponents are below .500 as well. With such a favorable schedule, it is a strong possibility that the Clippers could catch or surpass the two teams ahead of them – San Antonio and Oklahoma City – in the standings to emerge with the NBA’s best record.
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