The Clippers' big exhale

LOS ANGELES -- If ever there were a team and a head coach in desperate need of a win, the Los Angeles Clippers and Mike Dunleavy were it.

The Clippers had lost five of six games entering Friday night's game against the Denver Nuggets, all without their most efficient player, second-year guard Eric Gordon. Over that stretch, which included a couple of embarrassing blowouts and a gut-wrenching fourth quarter collapse, dark clouds descended over the team. Reports that Dunleavy's job was in serious jeopardy went public, and the malaise that infected the team last season began to surface.

What better antidote for a team on the ropes than a nationally-televised date against the NBA's fourth-ranked offense featuring the league's hottest player, Carmelo Anthony?

The Clippers couldn't do much to stop Anthony, but they showed Denver a variety of effective looks on defense, and got some timely shooting from their wings and reserve unit. That was enough to hold off Denver 106-99 at Staples Center.

To no one's surprise -- least of all the Clippers -- Anthony dominated the game with 37 points (12-for-20 from the field; 12-for-13 from the stripe).

"It's such a tough matchup with 'Melo, trying to get anyone to guard him," Dunleavy said. "So we mixed up our double-teams, our locations, we mixed up the clock with our zone work. We tried to keep him a little off-balanced, but he's so tough. He makes shots. He's got that hang time. He draws fouls."

Al Thornton, who drew the defensive assignment on Anthony for much of the night, was even more emphatic.

"I think he's the best offensive player in the league, hands down this year," Thornton said. "He can do everything out there on that court."

The Clippers countered with a balanced, more fluid attack, racking up 28 assists on the 36 field goals, and earned 36 free throw attempts in the process.

For a team that's sleepwalked through much of the past two weeks, the Clippers played an intelligent brand of basketball. They got into the bonus early. They worked Al Thornton in the post against a smaller Arron Afflalo. Rasual Butler, mired in a miserable slump over the losing streak while straining to create shots for himself (not his strong suit), returned to doing what he does best -- spot-up shooting. He led the Clips with 27 points, draining four of nine from beyond the arc.

Most of all for a team that occasionally has trouble getting on the same page, the Clippers communicated on the defensive end.

"The guys did a great job of talking," Mardy Collins, who relieved Thornton on Operation 'Melo, said. "That allowed us to make good decisions on defense."

After the game, the Clippers coaching staff was huddled in the assistant coaches' office studying film, examining the tea leaves, gleaning what they could from a satisfying victory. Whether the Clippers' win over an elite Western power is enough to reverse the tide remains an uncertainty. Eric Gordon's strained groin will keep him sidelined for at least a few more games, and rookie Blake Griffin won't return before December 15.

Those concerns aside, Mike Dunleavy should have his best night of sleep in weeks.