Clippers' depth keeps them afloat

LOS ANGELES -- The shot was never in doubt.

It usually isn't when it leaves Chauncey Billups' hands in these kinds of situations. You don't earn the nickname "Mr. Big Shot" by missing, well, big shots at the end of games.

Billups' game-winning 3-pointer to give the Los Angeles Clippers a 91-89 win over the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday night went through the basket so cleanly, the net didn't even shake as Billups was being mobbed by his teammates near midcourt.

"I don't care if bounced around ten times," Billups said after the game. "I was just happy it went in."

Seconds before Billups added another big shot to his ever-growing résumé, he was attempting to calm his young teammates down as the Clippers were in the midst of giving away what had been an almost certain win with an 88-83 lead with 40 seconds left.

It was an almost thankless task for Billups because he felt he was a big reason they were in that situation to begin with.

First, Billups hurried an errant pass to DeAndre Jordan that was intercepted by Shawn Marion and resulted in a Jason Terry 3-pointer. He then missed a 12-foot jump shot and, after a jump ball, fell out of bounds while trying to get fouled by Jason Kidd. When Terry hit a 3-pointer to give the Mavericks an 89-88 lead, Billups found himself in a familiar position to redeem himself and the team with the game on the line.

"The one thing about it is you have to have a short memory," Billups said. "I wasn't going to let those two turnovers mess up the rest of my game. We had an opportunity to win it and we did just that. I was surprised I was so open. I got a great look and it felt good."

There were several options on the final play, and it was up to Blake Griffin, who got the inbounds pass from Billups, to decide who would take the last shot. It wasn't a hard decision when Griffin saw the space Billups had after he passed him the ball.

"I handed it to him and I was just trying to hold off Kidd," Griffin said. "I probably saw the last few rotations and it went in. He's the veteran leader. At all times you can look to him and he knows exactly what he wants to do and what we should do. So for us the younger guys, we're trying to learn from him. He is that calming influence that you know the game is never out of reach when he is on the court."

When Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro stood in front of his team Tuesday night after it had lost 108-79 to the Utah Jazz, his message was pretty simple.

"We basically just wasted a bunch of jet fuel," he told the players.

It was easily the team's worst performance of the season on the second night of its first back-to-back-to-back of the year. It was so bad that the portraits of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan painted on the side of the three towers of the Figueroa Hotel in downtown Los Angeles were taken down. (OK, they were already scheduled to be removed, but still.)

How they would respond Wednesday against Dallas, the last night of their dreaded three-games-in-three-days stretch without Paul, would tell us a lot about the Clippers. Now, maybe their last-second win over Dallas wasn't as significant as their wins over the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers during their three-game winning streak last week, but it did tell us how well this group could handle adversity.

It was the kind of back-and-forth against the defending champions that a young team needs early in the season. Results aside, however, the Clippers are obviously a drastically different team without Paul, and anything they do or don't do in his absence should be taken with a grain of salt. Paul, who has missed the past three games with a strained left hamstring, is the Clippers' engine on offense. Without him, the Clippers' offense drives like a 2-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto.

The Clippers may have won the game but it was far from pretty. Much like when Paul was with the New Orleans Hornets, his teams are contenders when he is one the court but are often disorganized train wrecks without him. Perhaps it speaks to the lack of depth around him, but it's more of a credit to his presence and leadership when he is on the court. It would probably be similar if Derrick Rose was out of the lineup for the Chicago Bulls or if Deron Williams was sidelined for … well, not even Williams can help out the New Jersey Nets these days.

The beauty of the Clippers this season is they not only have one point guard with impeccable leaderships skills, but they have two with Billups, who has been starting at shooting guard alongside Paul this season.

On most teams, Billups, who finished with 21 points and 8 rebounds, would play the role of Paul and direct the offense and command the locker room. On the Clippers, he does it when he has to, and he has had to do plenty the past three games while Paul has been relegated to a well-dressed spectator on the bench. How many teams can lean on a former NBA Finals MVP with the résumé of Billups if their starting point guard goes down?

Not only can the Clippers lean on Billups in Paul's absence, but they can also lean on Mo Williams, who returned from a three-game absence with a right foot injury and scored a team-high 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting off the bench. As much as the Clippers would like to add some frontcourt depth, there aren't many teams that can boast three All-Star point guards.

"We are fortunate," Del Negro said. "We got Mo back, and hopefully we can get Chris back and just keep the process going. Winning these close games just gives us confidence as we continue to improve in a lot of areas."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.