1. With 11 Straight, Clips Eye New Horizon
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."
"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.
Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kevin Durant had four points for the first quarter. But he snapped back to reality and he then went ballistic, ending the game with 41 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter to close out the Hawks.
X factor: OKC bench was big time in this game. They were able to increase the lead to 10 without Durant and Russell Westbrook in the game in the first half and again in the second half.
That was ... hilarious: Kendrick Perkins, who's known as the man with the scowl and his aggressive defense, had a lighter moment tonight. Perkins was featured on the kiss cam and totally played along by smiling and grabbing teammate Eric Maynor. It was good to see a rare smile from Perk.
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Carmelo Anthony. Everything New York does on offense revolves around Melo's uncanny, borderline-unguardable scoring prowess. At the start of the second half, Brooklyn went so far as to begin double-teaming him literally at midcourt. His dodgy ankle might have kept him from driving the lane, but when he's rattling home 4 of 8 treys, it almost doesn't matter.
X factor: Tyson Chandler. Seven of 11 actually represents an off shooting (as it were) night for Tyson, but just as impressive and essential as the rim-rattling alley-oops are the tip-outs and his ability to prowl the lane, covering for each and every defensive gaffe on the perimeter like an overly caffeinated middle linebacker. He might be the one truly irreplaceable player on the Knicks' roster.
Defining moment: The Nets led, 61-57 with 6:23 left in the third in what had been a back-and-forth affair when the Knicks, spurred by a flurry of dunktastic finishes by Chandler, long-range bombs from Carmelo and lockdown defense, went on an 18-6 run to end the quarter, pulling away for good.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Zach Randolph. In a game filled with plenty of wild shots, controlling the glass was key. In the first half, Randolph pummeled Milwaukee for 13 rebounds while also chipping in 8 points. His play helped give the Grizzlies some distance at the half before they blew the doors open in the thirrd quarter.
LVP: Monta Ellis. It was a horrible shooting night for both teams. Milwaukee was especially awful. Ellis was spectacularly atrocious, going 1-for-14 from the field. Ellis' only made shot was a layup with 3 minutes left and the game secured for Memphis.
Defining moment: Third quarter. The Bucks were down but not out at halftime. Then came the third quarter and Milwaukee's seven turnovers led directly to five Grizzlies layups. In this low-scoring affair, giving away 10 points is a death sentence. The Grizzlies executed perfectly, and that was the end of Milwaukee's night.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Aaron Brooks. The Warriors had no answer for the former Guangdong Southern Tigers player, who scored 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting with 5 assists and 2 steals. Brooks had his way with the Warriors' backcourt as he paved the way for the Kings' 131- point outburst.
LVP: Who says someone who played only two minutes can't take the LVP crown? Richard Jefferson -- much to the chagrin of Warriors fans -- confusingly entered the game in crunch time and contributed nothing. A perturbing move by Mark Jackson to say the least.
That was ... atrocious: The Warriors gave up 131 points to the hapless Kings, who before tonight averaged 94.4 points per contest. In a season in which defense has actually been a contribution factor toward wins, this was a very Keith Smart-esque effort from the team.
Recap | Box score
MVP: For the second time this season, Shannon Brown torched the Bobcats, this time by scoring 18 of his 26 points in the third quarter after going for 18 in the fourth in their first meeting.
X factor: The Suns drained a season-high 17 3-pointers to turn this game into a rout. Brown knocked down five, while Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley had four apiece.
That was ... dominant: The Suns handed the Bobcats their 13th straight loss by outscoring them by 28 in the middle two quarters. Phoenix has won three straight by double figures after doing so just three times in its first 23.
Recap | Box score
MVP: James Harden. With just more than five minutes left in the game and the Rockets leading by 13 points, Harden's box score read 29 points on 11 shots. (ELEVEN SHOTS!!) He ended with 33 points on seven made baskets and 18 free throw attempts. What a ridiculously efficient basketball player.
X factor: Greg Smith is playing like one of the best backup centers in the NBA. Tonight he scored 13 points on five shots in just 13 minutes of action. Smith catches everything thrown his way, then gently (or not gently, as he displayed on a ferocious third-quarter dunk in traffic) places it in the basket.
That was ... skittish: Making the first start of his career, 21-year-old Sixers point guard Maalik Wayns decided to throw a pass at referee Bennett Salvatore on one of the first plays of the game. Salvatore caught the ball inbounds, and thousands of people let out a hearty laugh.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Paul Pierce was not to be denied. The Celtics' star had 40 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists and was an astonishing plus-29 overall.
LVP: Jeff Green. Pierce's backup had 3 points and 1 rebound and was on the floor for the Cavaliers' near-comeback in the third quarter. Despite being largely dominated tonight, the backup small forwards for the Cavaliers (C.J. Miles and Luke Walton) both individually had more impressive stat lines than Green. Perspective is everything.
That was unfortunate ... for Cavalier fans. The Celtics dominated most of this game due in large part to the absence of Anderson Varejao. Without their second-best player and defensive leader, the Celtics took advantage by blitzing the Cavaliers and never giving up the lead. Tonight's game would have looked far different with Varejao in the lineup.
3. Wednesday's Best
Kevin Durant, Thunder: Durant set a season high with 41 points and Oklahoma City held off Atlanta 100-92 for its 12th straight win. Durant scored 28 points in the second half, including 18 in the fourth, and also had 13 rebounds.
4. Wednesday's Worst
The East's have-nots: The four teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings (Washington, Cleveland, Detroit and Charlotte) all took a defeat Wednesday. In total, the four teams have combined to lose 29 straight.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I've been here long enough. Who knows, maybe I'll go for 50 one day."
-- Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who at 35 became the oldest player in Celtics history to score 40 points in a regulation game, in a 103-91 win over the Cavaliers.
8. Two Good
9. Stat Check
Stephen Curry scored 32 points, David Lee had 29 points and Jarrett Jack registered 28 points off the bench for the Warriors. But it did not help, as the team dropped a 131-127 decision to the Kings on Wednesday night. It marked the first time in nearly 18 years that a team lost a game that ended in regulation despite having three players each score at least 28 points. The last time that happened in a non-overtime game was on January 15, 1995, when Portland's Rod Strickland (32), Clifford Robinson (30) and Clyde Drexler (30) each did it in a 131-124 loss to Seattle.
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Chris Paul. Against his former franchise, Paul recorded his 5,000th career assist before turning back the clock with a two-hand jam. Just like the streaking Clippers, CP3 is showing no signs of slowing down.
X factor: Perimeter struggles. The Hornets shot 2-for-17 from behind the arc, while their starting backcourt combined for more turnovers than points. Even the great Robin Lopez can't save you when that happens.
Least valuable player: Austin Rivers. He was so close to a great moment in rookie futility. If Rivers didn't score three points, he would have played 20 minutes without a single other positive stat registered.
MVP: J.J. Redick has been the Magic's best player all season long and tonight was no different. Redick gave Orlando a nice lift off the bench, finishing with 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the floor (4-for-6 from 3-point range).
X factor: The Magic's starting backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo could not get anything going offensively against the Wizards. Luckily for Orlando, their backups -- E'Twaun Moore and Redick -- were able to pick up the slack.
That was ... ugly: Afflalo (15 points on 6-for-18 shooting) and Glen Davis (12 points on 6-for-18 shooting) were not models of efficiency on offense. They both put up a lot of shots with little to show for it in the box score.
MVP: Greg Monroe -- 35 points (a career high), 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals -- did everything he could to help the Pistons win, but all his teammates either scored fewer than 10 points or had at least three turnovers.
X factor: Jose Calderon masterfully ran the Raptors' offense with 17 assists and just 2 turnovers. Now, he's the only NBA player with three 17-assist games this season.
That was ... overshadowing: Monroe was the game's best player, and Calderon was important to the Raptors' success, but DeMar DeRozan and Alan Anderson played very well. After shooting 2-of-9 in his first game against Detroit this season, DeRozan scored 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting tonight. Anderson scored 12 fourth-quarter points, including back-to-back 3-pointers that gave Toronto some breathing room.
MVP: Paul George (20 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks) led a dominant Pacers team that completely took the Jazz out of their game on both ends of the floor.
X factor: The Pacers outscored the Jazz 52-28 on points in the paint -- getting to the basket at will. Two of those points came on a nasty back-scratching dunk by Gerald Green ( season-high 21 points and 4-6 on 3s) that probably should have counted double.
That was ... an embarrassing homecoming for Gordon Hayward: After Jamaal Tinsley picked up the dramatic come-from-behind win the night before in his home borough of Brooklyn, Hayward scored just 8 points and had 5 turnovers.