LOS ANGELES – It’s easy to tell when the Los Angeles Clippers have a nationally televised game.
Eight Staples Center employees will wheel out a massive 15-foot steel contraption shaped like a futuristic Arc de Triomphe onto the court. The arc will then light up and fire off smoke machines hidden behind a plastic Clippers logo attached to the top of the machine as the starting lineups are announced.
As miniature fireworks go off around the scoreboard, Clippers players run through the arc as smoke bellows from above.
The Clippers only roll out this monstrosity when they play nationally televised games. When they’re playing the New Orleans Hornets on a Monday night, it stays tucked in the bowels of Staples Center.
Before the game the DJ will scream, “We’re about to go live on TV! We’re about to go live on national TV! Make some noise!”
During the game, the in-arena MC will yell, “We’re about to come back from a commercial on national TV! Make some noise!”
At some point these nationally televised games against marquee opponents will become routine for the Clippers.
They won’t be treated like showcase events, but simply as a Thursday night game against the Boston Celtics.
After the Clippers destroyed the Celtics 106-77 to win their 15th straight game, maybe that day has already arrived and no one outside of the Clippers locker room has realized it until now.
It seems “nationally televised games,” “marquee matchups” and “streaks” live only in the vocabulary of those not on the court or the Clippers’ bench.
“I totally forgot about the streak today, honestly I did,” Chris Paul said. “I just love how we’re playing right now. I think it’s contagious.”
The Clippers’ 15-game winning streak is not only a franchise high but the longest in the NBA this season by the games. And their 23-6 record is not only the best start in team history, but the best record in the league.
They haven’t just been beating teams, they’ve been destroying teams by an average of about 16 points per game during the streak. Their 29-point win Thursday was their largest margin of victory over the Celtics in franchise history. Four days ago they beat the Phoenix Suns by 26 points. They haven’t lost a game since Nov. 26.
The Clippers have been defeating teams so handily during the streak that Paul and Blake Griffin have been relegated to nothing more than spectators in the fourth quarter; they are averaging career low minutes in the final period this season.
“It shows we have a lot of depth,” Paul said. “I probably sat out more fourth quarters this season than in my previous seven seasons. People talk about how me and Blake’s numbers are down, but we don’t play many fourth quarters. It just says a lot about our team and how everything is balanced.”
Perhaps nothing said more about how far the Clippers have come this season than when Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was asked about the game and the play of Griffin, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds in just 27 minutes.
“I thought we came out with too much respect,” Garnett said. “We wanted to play off some of their bigs and Blake hit some shots that he doesn’t usually hit. They came out with a lot of confidence and they packed the paint and that is the reason they have won 15 in a row. Teams like this, you have to come at them and attack them and we were not able to do that. As a result, they had us on our heels all night.”
So two days after Magic Johnson called the Clippers the latest version of Showtime, Garnett said the Celtics gave the Clippers “too much respect.” Maybe this is what the Mayans were talking about.
The biggest difference for the Clippers during their streak has been their defense. They are suffocating teams early and putting games away in the third quarter. The Clippers have only allowed 100 points twice during the streak. They held the Celtics to just 40.3 percent shooting on Thursday.
“Last year, I think they showed up and they just thought their talent and their offense was [going to win for them],” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “But this year their defense has been fantastic. I mean, we’re all talking about their offense, but they’re playing just terrific defense. And they have balance now. They’re fifth in the league in scoring, fifth in defense. That’s a balanced basketball team and that makes you really good.”
As Paul got dressed after the game, his son, Chris II, came up to him and told him about sitting on Justin Bieber’s lap during the game.
“I sat with Justin Bieber, daddy!” he said.
Paul laughed and handed his son his phone and asked him to play his favorite Bieber song. As little Chris scrolled through the playlist, Paul smiled and looked around a locker room that included Griffin conducting an interview wearing a fake mustache that Paul wore in a new insurance commercial.
On the opposite end of the room is a white board with the NBA standings and the Clippers sitting at the top.
It’s a nice position to be in right now, but it’s not enough for Paul.
“Some people may be impressed with the record, but we can’t be impressed,” Paul said. “You’re not measured by your regular-season wins and stuff like that. It’s going to be a long time before we really see what our team is really made of.”