1. December Whirl: Will Good Days Get Better?
LOS ANGELES -- Months from now, when the Los Angeles Clippers reflect on their undefeated December, the winning streak may seem like nothing more than a passing fling with perfection, a month of fantasy basketball played inside a snow globe.
That's the fear with a streak like the one the Clippers extended to 17 games with a 107-96 win over the Utah Jazz on Sunday night at Staples Center -- that the string of wins is an isolated spell of inspiration, not a precursor to any postseason glory.
"It's so early," Chris Paul said. "There are so many different things that can happen. I think for us right now, we're just trying to build as many wins as possible."
This has been the party line since the Clippers started piling up wins at an obscene rate. On Christmas night, Paul called the streak "Fool's Gold," a novelty that lesser teams might mistake as a valuable asset unto itself. To a man, the Clippers have said the streak is meaningful only because it signals the team is playing quality basketball. Players and coaches insist they don't talk about the streak among themselves.
"We don't say, 'We've got to go get 18!'" Jamal Crawford said. "That's the honest-to-god truth. Maybe that's why the streak is going, because we're so locked in the moment. It's about the winning, not the streak."
Call it false modesty or a deliberate effort to stay within themselves, but the Clippers continue to express this distinction: The 17-game winning streak is merely a vehicle for success, a pretty package that attracts attention but is far less important than what's inside.
But if the Clippers play as brilliantly this coming spring as they're playing now, they'll undoubtedly point to the post-Thanksgiving winning streak as the moment when the team arrived at a collective belief that they could contend for a title in 2013. Jazz coach Ty Corbin said prior to the game that the Clippers team headed into 2013 had inordinately more confidence than the one Utah saw on Dec. 3, when the streak was still in its infancy.
"We expect to win every time we step out there on the court," Caron Butler said. "A lot of teams say it, but we have a realistic shot every night, whether it's at home or on the road."
Butler led the Clippers with 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field, a contribution that was decisive on a night when the Clippers didn't play particularly well. For much of the game, the defense lacked the bite that vaulted them to third overall in the NBA in efficiency and the offensive output, while prolific, was more the product of some timely shotmaking than a consistent rhythm.
"Nothing came easy for us tonight," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "I thought we were a little I don't want to say 'lethargic,' but we didn't have that extra step early on."
Even though there was plenty to critique, the Clippers ultimately leveraged their strengths to find opportunities. Butler made note of this after the game, when he explained what fueled his 6-for-6 night from 3-point range.
"In the pick-and-roll sets, initially [Utah] was blitzing Chris [Paul] and Blake [Griffin] was getting the ball," Butler said. "[Utah] was sending a man off the top or from the baseline, and that's what made me so wide open on the weakside."
This is a lesson in X's and O's: exploit double-teams by finding the open man. But, for Butler, it was a demonstration of a quality he found in Dallas, when he was a vital part of the Mavericks' 2011 championship squad before being lost to injury -- selflessness as a team ethic. Butler noted that the entire team was on its way to a dinner hosted by Clippers' backup big man Ryan Hollins. There was no birthday to celebrate or magazine cover to toast.
"Just a nice dinner at a restaurant," Butler said. "[Ryan] invited everybody and everybody will be there. And it's not a coincidence that when you hang with each other off the court like that and care for one another and know what each other is like, it translates on the court."
As Butler prepared to join his teammates at Hollins' dinner, he touched on what he liked most about the Clippers' streak.
"I'm extremely happy to come to work," Butler said.
When a team gets on the kind of roll the Clippers are on, the component parts get absorbed by the totality of the streak. The single event -- a Blake Griffin dunk, or a Chris Paul inside-out dribble, a Jamal Crawford crossover or a DeAndre Jordan swat -- gets subsumed by something larger.
It becomes about the work, and those performing it.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Even though he missed a potential game-tying jumper with 1.9 seconds left, Monta Ellis was a standout performer for the Bucks in a losing effort, finishing with 30 points (12-for-22 shooting), 9 assists and 4 rebounds.
Defining moment: Ellis connected on a 15-foot jumper that put the Bucks ahead 94-92 (their first lead of the game) after trailing by double-digits for most of the night. But Tayshaun Prince responded by scoring the last four points and the Pistons escaped with a 96-94 victory.
That was a solid performance: Ersan Ilyasova's season has been a train wreck after signing a five-year, $40 million contract in the offseason; he's averaging career-low numbers across the board. The good news for the Bucks is that Ilyasova looked like himself tonight (24 points on 12 shots).
Recap | Box score
MVP: It was a close race, but Tony Parker gets the MVP over Tim Duncan. Parker led the Spurs in scoring with 21 points and had a game-high nine assists. Parker grabbed five rebounds for San Antonio as well.
X factor: When Dallas went to their zone in the second half, Boris Diaw played some of the best minutes he's had all season for the Spurs. Diaw had 10 points on four-of-four shooting in the second half and avoid some of the over-passing that he often falls victim to.
That was better than last time: When the Mavs and Spurs played just a few days ago, on Dec. 23, the Spurs hit a franchise-record 20 3-pointers on the way to a 38-point win. Sunday night's game wasn't decided until midway through the fourth quarter, when the Spurs went on a 13-4 run to put Dallas away.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Anyone on Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins posted a triple-double; Isaiah Thomas finished with a game-high 27 points and got into the paint at will; and Jason Thompson and John Salmons combined to go 17-23 from the floor for 43 points. Take your pick, almost everyone wearing a Kings jersey had his way in this one.
Least valuable player: Rajon Rondo. When will Boston's point guard realize that his team is craving aggressive offensive play from him on a nightly basis? After badly missing three 3-pointers in the opening few minutes of the game, Rondo attempted a grand total of three more shots the rest of the way, finishing with two points. Injury questions aside, performances like this are inexcusable for an All-Star caliber player who's capable of getting where he wants anytime he needs to.
That was revolting: Including this 22-point loss to the Pacific Division's last-place Sacramento Kings, the Celtics were outscored by 71 points in their three-game West Coast road trip. This qualifies as the worst stretch of basketball Boston's gone through since acquiring Kevin Garnett.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Caron Butler. How often does a guy score 29 points through three quarters and then not see the floor at all in the fourth quarter of a tight game? Give Butler credit for being just fine with his role -- and for going 6-for-6 from behind the arc.
X factor: Clutch performances. You don't win 17 games in a row without knowing how to close out a game. Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes knocked down big 3-pointers; DeAndre Jordan punished the hack-a-Jordan by making five straight free throws; and Chris Paul, as per usual, slammed the door shut.
That was perfect. The Clippers are now one of three teams in NBA history to play a perfect December, and they had to work for it in their final game. Al Jefferson was borderline unstoppable (30 points), but the streak survived.
3. Sunday's Best
Caron Butler, Clippers: His 17-point first quarter put him on pace for a 68-point night. But even Tuff Juice needs a rest, and when he wasn't on his stationary bicycle, he was torching the Jazz. Butler finished with 29 points and hit all six of his 3-point attempts.
4. Sunday's Worst
Boston Celtics: The Kings defeated the Celtics, 118-96, making this the third straight game Boston lost in a blowout. According to Elias, this is only the second time in team history that the Celtics have lost three consecutive games by 18 or more points. The first was in December 1977.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"They're real good and they're having a great streak, so we'll have to reckon with them and they're kind of setting the bar of where we need to get to."
-- Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, on the red-hot Clippers.
8. Triple-Double No. 1
9. Stat Check
The San Antonio Spurs' 111-86 victory at American Airlines Center tied their largest margin of victory in a road game against the Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs' only other 25-point win at Dallas was a 117-92 victory at Reunion Arena in 1994, led by David Robinson (37 points) and Dennis Rodman (20 rebounds).
10. Dunk Of The Night