1. Playoff Airs: Clippers' Defense Defines Win
LOS ANGELES -- Eventually the Los Angeles Clippers were going to have to find methods of winning besides sheer offensive brilliance. Entering Wednesday night, the Clippers were 24-3 when they scored at least 110 points and 15-17 when scoring anything less. They had scored at least 118 points in each of their previous five victories.
They happened upon something against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. Even if it was improvisation forced by deprivation, the result was one of their most significant results of the season, a 101-93 victory. Jamal Crawford left the game for good with a strained left calf just before halftime, and the Clippers' already diminished firepower (sharpshooter J.J. Redick remains out with a bulging disk in his back) took another hit.
Crawford wasn't effective even while he played, missing eight of his 10 shots. The Clippers' lob game wasn't at its usual highlight-generating level either, thanks to a Rockets defense determined to deny dunks.
Neither of these top-three scoring offenses in the league could top 50 points in the first half. The Rockets, finishing up a five-game road trip, seemingly emptied their offensive containers in Sacramento the night before.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers doesn't like to give his team unnecessary kudos (for example, he dismissed the Clippers' two November victories against Houston because the Rockets were still adjusting to their new roster). But he did give more credit to his team than the schedule for Houston's 20 turnovers.
"It was ball pressure," Rivers said. "I thought we were up into them most of the game."
Playoff implications were almost impossible to avoid at Staples Center on Wednesday night, when the Clippers had a chance to clinch a home-court advantage tiebreaker against the Houston Rockets, who themselves were facing a two-spot swing in the playoff standings. By beating the Rockets the Clippers (40-20) took a 3-0 lead in the season series, assuring themselves a home-court tiebreaker should they finish tied in the standings. Currently, the Clippers are locked into the fourth seed because they lead the Pacific Division. The Rockets (39-19), who have been bouncing back and forth with the Portland Trail Blazers, dropped to the No. 5 slot.
That means they'd face each other in the first round if they remain in these positions. And even though they're both teams that like to run, they know transition points are harder to come by when you're locked into an opponent for two weeks and are focused on taking away their strengths.
So the way the Clippers won was just as significant as the sheer point of "piling up wins," as Chris Paul said repeatedly.
"We got stops when we needed to," Blake Griffin said. "I just always feel like when we get stops it gives us momentum."
"We didn't score like we usually do," Paul said. "This was just one of those games where we're on the bench and at some point, it's not going the way you want to and things like that, and we said, 'Just win the game. Win the game.'"
That's all it comes down to in the postseason.
This game even had a taste of my favorite playoff pastime: the podium game. Normally the Clippers send Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and, increasingly, Jamal Crawford to the interview room to speak to the media. Wednesday night, Darren Collison took Crawford's place.
And it was telling that he didn't start by talking about his 19 points and five assists.
"I think what I was able to do defensively," Collison said. "I take pride in my defense. Especially against a guy like James Harden, All-Star player."
While guarding Harden in the second half Collison actually drew more fouls on Harden than he committed against him, a remarkable feat while facing a man who typically shoots nine free throws a game. Harden shoved away Collison midway through the fourth quarter, an offensive foul and turnover at a critical stage, when the Clippers were up by four points.
Rivers thought he could get away with using the smaller backcourt of Paul and Collison for extended minutes because the Rockets guards don't post up, and his hunch paid off.
But it's tough to imagine extended success if Crawford is out for a while. Crawford said he would have an MRI on his calf Thursday. Then he limped down the Staples Center hallway.
"[Crawford] had been playing unbelievable," Paul said. "We had gotten to a point where we are relying on him a lot."
That wasn't an option in the second half Wednesday. That left defense. And the Clippers were up to the task.
2. Around the Association
MVP: Blake Griffin has taken the sixth-most field goal attempts in the league this season, and Wednesday he hoisted 25. He had a game-high 23 points (on 11-for-25 shooting) and 16 boards. Terrence Jones couldn't handle him so Houston tried Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, to no avail.
LVP: Chandler Parsons. In the fifth game of a tough road trip, Parsons lost his shot. He was 3-for-13 from the field (1-of-5 from behind the arc) and was a +/- of minus-21.
Defining moment: Darren Collison hit a big 3-pointer with 2:09 left to extend the lead to 9, then he hit a 20-footer on the next possession. Finally he came down and hit a layup to score seven straight points in crunch time for the Clippers.
MVP: Jameer Nelson -- a legend at St. Joseph's and native of Chester, Pa. -- had himself a heck of a game in front of his family and friends. He finished with 16 points, 12 assists and six rebounds.
LVP: Despite playing only 17 minutes, Byron Mullens managed to chuck up 11 shots. Nearly every time Mullens had the ball in his hands, he was shooting. It didn't matter where he was on the court, either.
That was ... a rare road win: Somehow, someway, the Magic were able to snap their 16-game road losing streak. The Sixers, on the other hand, lost their 12th consecutive game and have yet to win in the month of February.
MVP: Jerryd Bayless, Boston's midseason addition, made the most of his first start of the season, filling in for injured Avery Bradley. Bayless carried Boston's offense in the second half, scoring 21 of his season-high 29 points after intermission, helping the Celtics snap a five-game losing streak.
X factor: Rebounding. Atlanta was extremely shorthanded in the frontcourt with three big men sidelined, and they paid the price for it on the glass. The Celtics outrebounded the Hawks 46-29, including a 14-6 edge on the offensive glass.
That was ... the old Rondo: Boston's prized point guard still isn't at 100 percent, but he's looking much more like his old self lately. Rondo posted 22 points and 11 assists against Atlanta, giving him his third double-double in his past four games.
MVP: Jimmy Butler. The Bulls' starting shooting guard returned from a rib injury in the game and was the spark plug that got his team going hot out of the gate. He finished the contest with 16 points, three blocks and two steals.
X factors: Energy and preparation. The Bulls were plus-15 in rebounds and plus-7 in assists, numbers that resulted from the Warriors' groggy approach going up against the sharp, well-executed Chicago game plan.
That was ... a testament to the Warriors' inconsistency: After an impressive four-game winning streak, Golden State simply didn't look like a playoff team Wednesday night.
MVP: Kyrie Irving showed off the skills that made him an All-Star Game MVP, dropping in 31 points and adding nine assists. He was efficient as well, shooting better than 50 percent from the field. He provided the Cavaliers with a steady offensive attack throughout the game, and demonstrated why he is considered one of the best young guards in the league.
That was ... surprising: No one really expected the Cavs to win this game, and it seemed surprising as it was happening. Through three quarters the Thunder had control, and it seemed like they should be able to pull it out, especially considering that Durant and Westbrook were each able to score more than 24 points.
X factor: Cleveland's backcourt: 52 points and 13 assists between Kyrie Irving and Jarrett Jack. The duo accounted for more than half of the team's total offense, and outscored Oklahoma City's starting backcourt by 20.
MVP: Finishing with 13 points and 12 rebounds, Marc Gasol basically ate L.A.'s depleted front-court for breakfast. While Gasol didn't exactly light the scoreboards up, he was a terrific distributor who helped lead Memphis in the first half.
X factor: The Grizzlies' bench. With L.A. quickly making a comeback in the early minutes of the fourth, the Memphis trio of Kosta Koufos, James Johnson and Tony Allen were fantastic in terms of being a high-energy and effective core on both ends of the court.
That was... perimeter dominance: Despite its loss, L.A. continued to battle for the entire game. While the defense slumped, the Lakers' perimeter offense was amazing as they hit 15 shots from beyond the 3-point arc on 58 percent shooting.
MVP: Monta Ellis punished the Pelicans with 23 points, seven assists and four steals. Ellis led Dallas on both ends of the floor, driving hard to the basket repeatedly and spurring the defense with his quick hands.
X factor: Brandan Wright had what might have been his most impactful game as a Dallas Maverick, finishing with eight points, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks. Usually an offensive force, his defense was key in the Dallas rout.
That was... frustrating: In a season filled with injuries to key players, the Pelicans suffered another blow in the second quarter when Anthony Davis was forced to leave the game with a shoulder sprain.
3. Wednesday's Best
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers: Irving scored 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter to help the Cavaliers stun Oklahoma City 114-104. Irving also had nine assists, five rebounds and four steals in the road win that puts the Fighting Gilberts 4 games out of the final East playoff spot.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Brooklyn Nets The Nets had the Blazers right where they wanted 'em. No LaMarcus Aldridge? This should be good for Prokohorovs Peeps, right? Nyet. The Nets proceeded to lose 124-80 in Portland, missing a chance to leapfrog Charlotte for the No. 6 spot in the East.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"This is not a distraction to this team."
-- Knicks guard Raymond Felton, who is facing multiple gun-offense charges, on whether that would somehow be a problem
8. Return Of Kawhi
9. Stat Check
The Chicago Bulls held Stephen Curry to five points and limited Klay Thompson to eight points in their 103-83 victory over the Golden State Warriors. Golden State's starting backcourt has averaged a league-high 40.8 points this season, and their total of 13 points on Wednesday night was their lowest in any game since Feb. 5, 2013 (at Houston).
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: Gordon Hayward nearly picked up a triple-double with a 17-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist performance before being subbed out with five minutes left in the game. Coaches are notorious for ruining fun.
LVP: With Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Leandro Barbosa all out due to injury, Ish Smith took over starting point guard duties for the Suns. It went poorly. Smith finished with a game-low +/- of minus-24.
Defining moment: With Utah leading by five in the third, Richard Jefferson drove on Markieff Morris, drawing the two-shot foul. Morris argued for the offensive foul call, but received a technical, leading to a 9-0 Jazz run.
MVP: Despite a vicious shoe blowout (more on that in a moment), Manu Ginobili paced the Spurs in the second half with 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting and nine assists against the Pistons.
X factor: San Antonio went to the free throw line 25 times against Detroit on Wednesday night and drained 23 attempts (92 percent), hitting six more free throws than Detroit attempted.
That was... the greatest shoesplosion in NBA history: Late in the second quarter Ginobili took a step backward defending Rodney Stuckey and came completely out of his left shoe. As in, his foot went through it. The shoe exploded and Spurs equipment personnel replaced the shoe during a 20-second timeout.
MVP: Nicolas Batum, the streaky, somewhat mercurial small forward, set the tone early for Portland. He got out on breaks, attacked the basket and shared the ball. He finished with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals.
Turning point: The Blazers blew this one wide open in the closing minutes of the first half. Already up 14, Portland ended the quarter on a 13-1 run and took a 58-34 lead into the break.
That was ... Brooklyn's worst loss and lowest output of the season -- by far: The Nets, who hadn't played since Sunday, looked more like a team on the second night of a back-to-back (which, coincidentally, was the case with the Blazers). Brooklyn was disjointed in all aspects.