A Chris-mas Story

There were two successful reclamations displayed at Staples Center, and while the Lakers’ five-game winning streak is noteworthy, the Clippers’ 14-game run is historic. The Lakers had stalled coming off the line and needed to be jump-started. Ultimately the first two months of this season will be a mere blip in their banner-laden archives. The Clippers over the years were a wayward satellite that threatened to spin out of Earth orbit if they weren’t reeled back in. This is the result of a major, multi-year endeavor.

The Clippers franchise won only 19 games the 2008-09 season. The delayed debut of Blake Griffin gave them hope and excitement, but nothing close to a winning record. The trade for Chris Paul reset the standards and gave them grandiose visions. In quiet conversations they’ll tell you they are targeting a championship this season, and the only reason more people aren’t agreeing with them is because they’re the Clippers.

They’ve been so futile for the vast majority of their 3 ½ decades in Southern California that whenever they do launch a successful run the only historical comparisons to be made are from the franchise’s days as the Buffalo Braves in the 1970s. That’s the inertia Paul had to reverse.

He and the Clippers are pushing the Braves further back into the recesses of history now, the latest being the franchise-record winning streak that now belongs to this 2012-13 Clipper squad that just won it’s 14th game in a row. Their 112-100 victory over the Denver Nuggets, coupled with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s loss to the Miami Heat earlier gave the Clippers the best record in the NBA at the end of a long Christmas basketball day. The Clippers had never held the NBA’s best record as late as Thanksgiving. I doubt they’ve even had the best record on Halloween.

So while the early returns on Steve Nash’s return have him delivering every thing the Lakers hoped for, they still have only a .500 record to show for it.

The Clippers are 22-6. Things are different, exactly as Paul wanted them to be.

“I know what the perception was,” Paul said. “I know that if I came on a road trip to play here in L.A., we felt like we were going to win.”

With that, he shot a glance at Griffin, as if to say, “No offense.”

“We want guys to know when they play us, they better get some rest before the game. They’re going to be in for a dogfight.”

Just don’t expect it to be a fight to the finish. The Clippers have the league’s best point differential this season, winning games by an average of 10 points. Yes, not only are the Clippers a winning team, they’re a dominant team.

So again, we need to start thinking of them in different terms, superlative terms, such as this nomination from Nuggets coach George Karl:

“I think Chris Paul right now -- I know this might sound crazy -- I think he’s the defensive player of the year. I think he’s an incredible defender. I think he gets the ball, causes pressure.”

Here’s the case: a large degree of the Clippers’ success is turnovers. They lead the NBA in both turnovers forced per game, and points off turnovers. And Paul is their chief thief, averaging a league-high 2.7.

He had three more Tuesday night. At this point the ball is starting to find him, the way a hockey puck seems to magically wind up on the sticks of the greatest scorers. A wayward Javale McGee pass bounced right to Paul, and the Clippers were on their way to another fast break.

He also makes the plays that don’t help his stats, like when he got to Corey Brewer at the same time as an outlet pass. In a subtle bit of positioning, Paul wasn’t at risk of picking up a foul, but close enough to stop Brewer in his tracks, bring the Nuggets offense to a temporary halt and allow the Clipper defense to set. They wound up forcing a jump ball between Blake Griffin and Ty Lawson, which went exactly the way you’d expect it to.

Paul as defensive player of the year makes more sense than Paul as Most Valuable Player, if only because the Clippers’ strong bench play dilutes Paul’s impact on the game, leaving him well below the statistical measures of Kevin Durant and LeBron James . His statistics in Clipper victories are actually worse than in Clipper losses, including a two-point dip in his scoring average.

His numbers Tuesday were a pedestrian 14 points and eight assist. Just be aware that he was on the court when the Clippers blew the game open, stretching the lead from three points to 20 points in the second quarter. Just know that he’s been presiding over the best basketball this franchise has ever played for an extended run.

Coach Vinny Del Negro called Paul the catalyst.

“Chris has a great pulse of the game. His assist-to-turnover ratio…just his command of the game is as good as any. He puts us in situations where we have the ability to execute on both ends.”

It’s just the right mixture of commanding and following (or as Nelson Mandela would call it, leading from behind). Note how Blake Griffin still has the honor of having his name called last when the starting lineups are introduced. Or how Paul goes along with others’ suggestion for dressing in Men in Black costumes for Halloween. Or donning a ridiculous sweater along with Griffin and everyone else when that was the theme for Christmas.

Interesting that Paul struggled a bit to describe exactly how he wanted to alter the course of this franchise. It’s almost unnecessary. You can see it in his play. You can hear it in a sweater that, no lie, jingled when he moved.