It may only be November, but the Los Angeles Clippers are already showing a certain maturity, a maturity that they failed to manifest against San Antonio during the playoffs last season. To recap, the Spurs swept LA, with the highlight (or low point, if you're the Clippers) being the Spurs' 24-point comeback in Game 3 at Staples Center.
At the outset, Wednesday night's tussle followed a similar progression: The Clips jumped out to a big lead and proceeded to fall apart for a prolonged stretch; but this time, they regrouped, ran half-court offense and continued to defend, emerging with a powerful 106-84 win.
"The Clippers haven't been together very long," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN. "Last year they weren't really together. It's not like they've been together for five years and they know each other and everything is golden and everything is smooth. It takes time for a team to get to know each other."
"Getting to know each other" has been an ongoing process for Chris Paul and the two super young Clipper bigs, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin, who is working with highly respected shooting coach Bob Tate, continues to improve his jumper, while Jordan has become a full-court wrecking ball as both a dominant shot blocker and surprisingly skillful interior player.
Time and time again on Wednesday night, Jordan protected the paint. Most impressively, he did so against Tim Duncan (10 points), while also blocking four shots and altering another couple against the San Antonio guards, who simply could not get a clean look within six feet.
"When [Jordan] is on his game, he's tough," Griffin said. "He can score. He can catch anything four feet above the rim, no matter where it is, alter, block shots and just intimidate people from even trying to put up a shot. So when he's active like that, the paint is controlled by him."
Paul, one of the NBA's premier point guards, now has the distinct luxury of throwing lobs to the most athletic duo of big men in the league. And he is not alone in the backcourt either. Eric Bledsoe, the third-year pro from Kentucky, has become a dynamic pace-changer off the bench as a harassing defender and tremendous open-floor playmaker. In 22 minutes against the Spurs, he totaled 15 points and five assists and looked comfortable in playing both on and off the ball, depending on whether or not Paul was in the lineup.
At 3-2, the Clippers, who've also defeated the Lakers, have already displayed remarkable growth for a young team early in the season. The offense is crisp and clean, and the defense, while imperfect, is more active. With an elite starting unit flanked by firepower off the bench in Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford, LA ranks fourth in points per game and, as it did against the normally efficient Spurs, can lock opponents down with swarming defense.
Last year, with its first postseason series win since 2006, the franchise finally demonstrated that it is moving on from its reputation as league doormat, earned during the Mike Dunleavy years. While current head coach Vinny Del Negro might be deserving of his share of criticism, he has at the very least helped the Clips' escape its past. Now with a healthier Paul alongside the quickly improving Griffin, Jordan and Bledsoe, the team may be ready to take the next step.
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