1. Will Lack Of Identity Help Or Hurt Clippers?
Special to ESPN.com
Every team wants a calling card. The Detroit Pistons had the Jordan Rules, the Boston Celtics had Ubuntu. Whether it's run-and-gun basketball, pressure defense, or whatever else, teams love putting pride in something they can do better than everyone else.
Many of the great teams in the NBA already have an identity established, but for 17 straight games, the Clippers have stormed the league by actually assuming the identity of their opponents. Even with a target affixed to their back as the wins racked up, the Clippers were like a great spy who somehow managed to hide in plain sight. But how?
There are different theories, and probably a few involve the shadow the Lakers' mess casts, but more likely it's because the Clippers weren't rattling off wins behind a specific brand of basketball. There was no Tom Thibodeau defensive system, no Grit and Grind, no Triangle Offense -- just a team that happily accepted its opponent's terms of engagement for an entire month. You want to play fast? Please do. You want to play half-court basketball? Chris Paul thanks you. There was no style the Clippers couldn't and wouldn't embrace during the streak.
Eventually, of course, that streak had to end. And in that sense, it's fitting that Denver was the team to finally catch the Clippers. No group leverages a home-court advantage with up-and-down play quite like the Nuggets, who now own an impressive streak of their own with eight straight home wins.
Even though the Clippers were busted this time, in a game they shot a very Nuggets-ish 5-for-29 from behind the arc, the questions about their future remain. Can the Clippers, a team that's simple by design, a team that's so loose and undefined on both ends of the court, rattle off another winning streak in May or June? Was this a fluke, or is it sustainable? Can they accomplish something like this when lurking down the playoff road there's a grand tactician like Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who will have multiple off-days to pin the Clippers down and force them into becoming what he wants them to be?
The answers aren't readily available, but it's easy to recall the results of last season's Clippers, a team filled with players who were talented but more limited in their scope of abilities -- the Reggie Evans and Nick Young types. That team went through a gruesome series in Memphis, where they played the definition of Grizzlies basketball. Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph sumo wrestled for seven games, but the Clippers emerged victorious, broken but not beaten. Somehow, they had managed to defeat the Grizzlies at their own game. Identity theft.
But immediately thereafter, the Spurs rolled in and unceremoniously dispatched the Clippers, with bargain bin guys like Danny Green issuing a good portion of the damage. They threw the defensive playbook at Paul. They used offensive sets the Clippers had never even seen before. The result, as you may recall, was a Spurs sweep and a second-round exit for the Clips.
So while the 17-game winning streak was certainly impressive, it provides only clues and no definitive answers to the questions left over from last season's playoff exit. We can assume the Clippers will have a deeper bench, especially once Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill return to action. We can assume the talent level is improved, maybe even vastly so, and that the players will perform as such. And with a reasonable amount of certainty, we can also assume that whoever lines up across from Paul and Eric Bledsoe will be put through the wood-chipper. These are all assumptions the win streak lends an awful lot of credence to.
And of course, there are things you can't argue with, like the Clippers still having the league's best record and being one of the only teams with a top-five offense and defense in terms of efficiency. There are complex statistical formulas that say the Clippers are handily the best team in the league, with no bias inserted. You can look at John Hollinger's Playoff Odds and see that the Clippers are currently the favorite to win the NBA championship. There are a lot of very, very smart people that will tell you current performance dictates future success.
But at least for right now, simply "being better" is enough of an identity for the Clippers.
D.J. Foster writes for ClipperBlog, part of the TrueHoop Network.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
X factor: Amar'e Stoudemire returned to play his first game of the season for the Knicks, playing a relatively uneventful 17 minutes and scoring six points and gathering one rebound. The Knicks also got 45 points from Carmelo Anthony, tying his season-high.
MVP: Ho-hum, another good Blazers showing, another strong Nic Batum game (26 points, six assists). You'd be forgiven for having not noticed Batum playing on a relatively unheralded Portland squad, but save for one slump a few weeks back, he has been Portland's best player this season.
Defining moment: With about a minute to play, Damian Lillard hit a stepback 3 over Pablo Prigioni to put the Blazers up six points. It was one of Portland's most balanced efforts of the season, and Lillard's shot made this game a heartening start to a road trip that will test Portland's mettle.
Recap | Box score
That was ... fitting for the new year: As the Clippers had their 17-game winning streak snapped, the Nuggets made it eight straight home victories. Out with the old, in with the new.
MVP: Andre Miller. Starting for the injured Ty Lawson, Andre Miller completely controlled the game by exploiting angles and manufacturing easy looks (12 assists) for his bouncy big men. Miller's old-man game really does get better with time, apparently.
Defining moment: Watching your own shots rim out all night is discouraging enough, but to watch JaVale McGee, a player who hasn't made a 3-pointer in his entire career, knock down a buzzer-beating trey? That's a dagger.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Evan Turner. Stuffing the box score like it was the Christmas stocking of an especially well-mannered kid, Turner scored 22 on just 14 shots and threw in 13 rebounds and a quintet of dimes for good measure. It was his eighth double-double of the season.
LVP: Seems the stink of the season's first few months followed Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol into the New Year. The Lakers twin towers -- each mired in career-worst campaigns -- wobbled again against Philadelphia, mustering just 18 points between them on 3-of-19 shooting.
X factor: Native Angelino Jrue Holiday looked pretty focused against the Lakers, particularly when he exploded down the lane with 22 seconds left for a thunderous dunk that pushed the Philly lead to 103-97 and all but ended the thing. His 26 points and 10 assists (against a single turnover) also, I think, suggested focus.
Recap | Box score
MVP: If a team like the 4-25 Wizards doesn't get what's left of Vince Carter's juices flowing, what will? The artist formerly known as Vinsanity started the game with a monster dunk and finished with 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
X factor: Dahntay Jones. Bradley Beal led the Wizards with 22 points on 16 shots, but when Jones was on him defensively, any "good" moments for the rookie were far and few between. Jones also often helped contain Jordan Crawford, one of the few scorers the Wizards have.
That game was ... a tale of two halves: The Wizards dominated the lethargic Mavericks early thanks in large part to their work on the boards. But the Mavs outscored the Wizards 35-19 in the third quarter behind six of Dirk's 11 points in the game, and didn't look back.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Josh Smith. He appeared frustrated in the first half, and was lackadaisical in getting back on defense at times, but he finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 blocks and 3 steals with only one turnover while taking the majority of his shots (13 of 20) inside of the paint. He also grabbed his 5,000th career rebound.
LVP: Eric Gordon got some nice cheers when he checked in for his first game in New Orleans in almost a year. He did little to reward the fans, though, shooting just 5-for-17 and turning the ball over four times.
X factor: Zaza Pachulia had six offensive boards, boosting an anemic rebounding effort by the Hawks before he came into the game. His double-double -- 12 points, 10 rebounds -- in just 20 minutes is probably the reason Atlanta won this game.
Recap | Box score
MVP(s): The Pistons led by double digits for most of the night thanks in large part to their second unit, which contributed 44 points. The bench opened the second quarter with a 23-7 spurt, which allowed Detroit to enjoy a comfortable lead until the tail end of the game.
Defining moment: Clinging to a 100-97 lead, Austin Daye drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Pistons back up by six with 11.5 seconds left, quelling a Kings rally after coughing up a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.
That was ... uncalled for: In the late stages of the second quarter, Isaiah Thomas drove to the basket and was met by a forearm to the upper body from Charlie Villanueva, who was assessed a flagrant-2 and ejected from the game. A suspension could be forthcoming for Villanueva.
3. Tuesday's Best
Carmelo Anthony, Knicks: Well, Amar'e hasn't affected Melo. The Knicks couldn't fend off the scrappy Blazers, but Melo still did Melo in his return from injury, pouring in 45 points on 14-for-24 shooting with seven rebounds and four assists in Stoudemire's 2012-13 debut.
4. Tuesday's Worst
L.A. Lakers: The four-win Wizards and seven-win Hornets added to their 20-plus loss totals, but the Lakers' defeat to Philly at home may have been the ugliest of the night. L.A. is now below .500 again at 15-16, matching their worst start since 2002-03.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"'Cause we're old as s---."
-- Kobe Bryant, on why energy has been a problem for the 15-16 Lakers this season.
8. Bobbled Ball
9. Stat Check
The Clippers' 17-game winning streak is the third instance that an NBA winning streak of 17 or more games has ended with a loss on Jan. 1. (No other date on the calendar has seen the end of more than one such winning streak.) In the NBA's inaugural season of 1946-47 (the league was then known as the Basketball Association of America), the Washington Capitols saw their 17-game winning streak end with a 62-57 loss to the Detroit Falcons on Jan. 1, 1947; and the 1959-60 Celtics had their 17-game winning streak terminated with a 128-115 loss to the Cincinnati Royals on Jan. 1, 1960.
Another common thread for those two teams, other than that they ended with a loss on the first day of the year? Both that Capitols team and that Celtics team were coached by Red Auerbach.
10. Dunk Of The Night