Updated: December 20, 2012, 11:03 AM ET

1. With 11 Straight, Clips Eye New Horizon

By Kevin Arnovitz

LOS ANGELES -- Toward the end of the second quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers' 93-77 win over New Orleans on Wednesday night, Chris Paul corralled an offensive rebound off a Jamal Crawford miss, took a single dribble, then zipped an interior pass through traffic to Blake Griffin underneath the weakside glass. Griffin muscled his way upward for a lay-in, and-1.

The feed to Griffin was the 5,000th career assist for Paul, who became the third-youngest player in NBA history to reach the milestone. As the revolving carousel announced the achievement in bright lights, the Clippers bench immediately stood up and applauded, followed by a brief hiatus as the crowd rose to its feet and Griffin momentarily stepped off the line.

Paul didn't acknowledge the cheers or do whatever a basketball player's equivalent is of doffing his cap. He didn't appear petulant or ungracious. He simply wore the same look he always does when there's basketball to be played, an expression that says, "Let's go, because I have business to attend to."

Los Angeles Clippers
Harry How/Getty ImagesOn both ends, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin concede little en route to 11 straight wins.

"I didn't know what everyone was cheering for," Paul said. "I'm always so intense in the game, trying to figure out what defense we're in or what we're running.

"It's pretty cool to do it here [in Los Angeles] in front of our home crowd, and I told [Griffin] he got the 5,000th and he made the free throw."

Success has come easy for the Clippers over the past three weeks. Their thrashing of the Hornets was the team's 11th consecutive win, seven of those victories by double digits. During the streak, the Clippers have been brutally efficient, while still pausing every once in a while to launch their signature pyrotechnics into the atmosphere.

"It's good when you win," Paul said. "I told everyone on the team, the food tastes better. The music sounds better. You sleep a little bit better. Everything's a little bit better when you win. We just have to keep it going."

The 11 straight wins matches a franchise record achieved in November 1974 in Buffalo as the Braves, coached by Dr. Jack Ramsay. For Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, the streak doesn't carry a lot of import.

"We don't talk about the winning streak," Del Negro said. " I always tell the guys, 'Trust your eyes.' When you look out there, you know when you're playing the right way and you know when it's right."

How do we know when an upstart team crosses the threshold into contention? Is it as simple as trusting one's eyes or the flavor profiles in the postgame spread or the beats underneath the tracks and the quality of one's sleep, or are there dramatic moments or significant events that foretell that growth? When a squad makes that jump, does it take on a specific aura? And if so, how we identify that glow?

In short, are we ready to assign the 19-6 Clippers to the exclusive ranks of title favorites?

The truth is there are few telltale signs other than the standings, and no engraved invitation until you start seeing holograms on tickets. All a team can do is ask itself, "Are we getting what we want on both ends of the floor? Are we exerting our will and our design of the game over our opponent?"

Through 25 games, the Clippers can confidently answer that question in the affirmative, and Wednesday was no exception. As is becoming commonplace for the Clippers, five players scored in double digits -- Griffin (18), Crawford (17), DeAndre Jordan (12), Matt Barnes (11) and Paul (10). None of the starters, save Willie Green, played in the fourth quarter.

The Clippers are the only team in the league that ranks top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Last season, the Clippers' defense lagged and kept an offensive juggernaut in the ranks of the NBA's upper-middle class. This season, those big defensive issues have been reduced to occasional hiccups, while Griffin and Jordan have learned to apply their athleticism to complicate life for opponents' pick-and-roll attack.

"The biggest thing is that everyone is down in a defensive stance," Paul said. "When our bigs are up in a ball screen, it's a point guard's nightmare. I can't stand when guys do that to me defensively, so when [Jordan] and Blake and those guys are up on the ball screen, it's tough to go anywhere."

Improvement on defense was Item No. 1 on the Clippers' agenda for the 2012-13 season. Among the other notables on that list were the development of Jordan's offensive game, establishing a coherent second unit that could hold down both ends of the floor and a collective embrace of Paul's fiercely competitive spirit. If the Clippers could check off those boxes, they could conceivably reach the highest range of their potential.

With nearly a third of the season in the books, the Clippers are rolling through that list. The on-court product is infectious, as is the camaraderie in a locker room populated by sons and a collection of personalities that seem to mesh, from the earnest (Paul) to the sarcastic (Griffin), from the jocular (Jordan) to the cool customer (Caron Butler).

And, since this is the Clippers, there's always the eccentric. Following the game, Clippers owner Donald Sterling dropped into the locker room to regale his players with a loud, "Hip, Hip, Hooray!" -- a call that reverberated through the event-level concourse at Staples Center.

Over in the corner, Paul wanted a little acknowledgement from his son, known as "Little Chris," about Paul's breakaway two-handed slam in the third quarter.

"Who dunks?" Paul asked his son.

"Blake!" Little Chris said.

"Who else?" Paul asked.

"Willie [Green]," Little Chris said.

"Who else?" Paul asked again.

"Blake!" Little Chris said for the second time.

As the locker room erupted, Barnes echoed a sentiment shared by Del Negro prior to the game when the coach said, "It's a big win to beat us."

"We know we're the hunted now," Barnes said. "Teams are gunning for us."

Is it possible that's how a ballclub definitively knows it's for real?

The truth is that nobody can chart precisely when a team makes that crossing -- not the stars, coaches, fans or even the owners. Moments like an 11th straight win seem monumental, but there's no way to know for sure.

The Clippers look indomitable, but uncertainty is a peril of life -- especially in basketball.

Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA writer and editor for ESPN.com. Follow him @kevinarnovitz.

Dimes past: Dec. 1 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7-8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14-15 | 16 | 17 | 18

Around The Association


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?