NEW ORLEANS -- First came the game jersey. Then the right wristband, followed by the left. With the fans still begging for more spoils, Chris Paul kicked off his shoes, one going into the scrum of fans crushing the barricade cordoning off the baseline section, the other to a kid in the corner section.
New Orleans is an undeniably permissive city, but Paul now wearing nothing more than an undershirt, red shorts and black socks. With little else to peel off, the strip tease was over. The point guard shuffled through the tunnel of his erstwhile home arena to savor the Los Angeles Clippers’ 105-91 win over the New Orleans Hornets.
Back in the Clippers’ locker room, not one of Paul’s teammates had hit the showers. Everyone was glued to the mounted flat screen, watching the Miami Heat try to preserve their 27-game winning streak against the Chicago Bulls. Aside from a few, ahem, gentlemen’s bets, no Clippers expressed a loyalty either way -- but when there’s a sexy event happening in your industry, it’s impossible not to be captivated.
“You’re not rooting for anyone,” Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. “It’s just exciting basketball.”
Paul ambled over to his locker at the far end of the room, where he was swarmed by local media. It’s been 15 months since the Hornets dealt their franchise player to Los Angeles, but there’s still mutual allegiance between Paul and New Orleans.
“Just being here, seeing all these familiar faces, I miss it,” Paul said. “No question about it. I miss the people here. My pastor was sitting on the baseline. My old chef, my barber, everybody. This is my family.”
The Clippers came into New Orleans still smarting from their previous night’s overtime loss in Dallas. The team didn’t play poorly against the Mavericks. The process was fairly clean, but the results simply weren’t there.
For most of the season, the Clippers have made defenses pay for the kind of aggressive traps Dallas deployed against Paul. The Clippers have plenty of releases in their offense to counter that kind of pressures -- a pass from Paul to a teammate at the top of the circle, who then quickly hits a shooter along the arc. But few of those open looks fell in Dallas.
That wasn’t the case Wednesday night, as the Clippers lit up the Hornets’ pack-the-paint defense from beyond the arc, draining 13 of 29 attempts from long range.
“Down the stretch tonight they tried to trap,” Paul said. “But tonight we were able to make them pay. Blake [Griffin] found Matt [Barnes] in the corner for the dagger.”
Process, meet result: Barnes had a similarly clean look on Tuesday night during a crucial late possession in overtime that could’ve tied the game, but it didn’t catch rim. On Wednesday, Barnes was able to hush a crowd in New Orleans that heckled him relentlessly.
Paul finished with 16 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals, but his floater during the final two minutes gave the Clippers a 10-point lead and effectively iced the game.
Griffin arrived in New Orleans a little down. Over his previous three games, Griffin recorded as many turnovers as field goals (10) and shot 31.3 percent from the floor. He’d been a reasonably decent facilitator from the high post, but Griffin needs some red meat in his on-court diet (not off, where he’s a stickler for healthy stuff), and the aggressiveness hadn’t been there.
On Wednesday, Griffin stormed back, undeterred by a skilled young defender in Anthony Davis and big man Ryan Anderson. Griffin said he was disappointed with a couple of easy misses, but his output was solid -- 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field and a 7-for-8 night from the stripe.
“I was much more aggressive,” Griffin said. “A lot of times I don’t want to force things. A lot of times, I want to be a facilitator in games. I need to pick and choose my areas a little bit better.”
At times, Griffin sees himself as a finesse player in a power body. It’s a delicate balance, but the power trumped the finesse for much of Wednesday night. When the Hornets showed high on a pick-and-roll in the first quarter, Griffin slipped to the basket without hesitation, catching the pass en route to finish strong. That possession ignited Griffin, who attacked the basket with a renewed commitment to bullyball.
On a night when both the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets lost, the Clippers moved back into the No. 3 slot in the Western Conference. And while a win over a lottery-bound team shouldn’t beget too much satisfaction, this is a Hornets team that dispatched both Memphis and Denver over the past week.
As the Heat’s winning streak was officially snapped while Griffin addressed the media, the power forward recalled the Clippers’ 17-game winning streak in December and the invincibility a team feels when it’s ripping off wins like that.
“In the middle of it, it just feels like you can’t lose,” Griffin said. “You have confidence that you can win any game you’re in.”
The Clippers head to Texas for a back-to-back with San Antonio and Houston, in search of a restored sense of fearlessness they carried with them less than three months ago.