A SEASON TO REMEMBER: PART 2
The loss that led to 17-straight wins and the NBA’s best record at the midway point.
It was on the heels of one of the most peculiar losses of the season that the Clippers began rewriting their history of winning.
The build up to one of the most anticipated regular seasons in 43 years as a franchise was solidified with consecutive wins in the first week over the Grizzlies and Lakers, who at the time were considered the preeminent favorites to play the Heat in the Finals.
As the Clippers navigated November with a new bench and a new starter at shooting guard (Willie Green), there was already a sense that the group, once fully healthy, could be the first legitimate title contender since the team was known as the Braves and had 1974-75 MVP Bob McAdoo in tow. They beat the Spurs in rousing fashion, blowing the game open with 24 fast-break points and double-doubles from Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. They knocked off the Heat, Bulls and Spurs, again, but the seesaw month continued with a 1-3 road trip and 8-5 overall record heading home.
That’s when the New Orleans Hornets, missing Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, entered Staples Center on Nov. 26. The game, which the Clippers lost by seven, included nine 3-pointers by Caron Butler, a franchise record, and 33 3-pointers by the two teams combined. It mattered little whether shooters were open or covered or somewhere in between, seemingly every shot that went up from beyond the arc was liable to go in.
It wasn’t so much the anomaly of that loss but in combination with the two prior, where the Clippers slogged through a second half in Brooklyn the day after Thanksgiving that looked like they were fueled by tryptophan and a double-digit loss in Atlanta. Questions about the Clippers ranged from their ability to stop opponents to their focus to their game plan. They had lost four in a row and all of the good will from Vegas and China and their impressive home victories had dissipated the way it seems to so quickly.
Following the loss to New Orleans, Jamal Crawford said, “You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low.” It’s a common NBA adage, and Crawford would repeat it again several times during a bizarrely up-and-down 56-win season, but on Nov. 26 he said it for the first time.
Three things happened in the next 48 hours that altered the landscape. First, and clearly most importantly, the Clippers sounded as though the loss to New Orleans without their two best players was a wakeup call. Second, Chauncey Billups, who missed the first 14 games while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, was slated to return to the lineup. And finally, the schedule, beginning with Minnesota on Nov. 28, entered its easiest section of the year.
Nothing of that signified a tectonic shift immediately. The aftermath, though, of 17 consecutive wins reconfigured the NBA standings and for the first time ever brought about a mountain of praise the Clippers’ direction.
The winning streak, which matched the seventh longest since the ABA-NBA merger, took on a life of its own. There was the pregame jukebox (or iPod dock) that repeated Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything” out of superstition. There was the 19-point comeback win in Utah to extend the streak to 16. There were the ugly Christmas sweaters, record margin of victories over the Kings and Celtics, and the emergence of a bench that played more in the fourth quarter than the Clippers’ starters and earned an incalculable number of nicknames that never really stuck.
On Dec. 30, the Clippers beat the Jazz for the third time during the streak, winning their 17th straight game and completing the third 16-0 month in NBA history. They were 25-6.
Of course, the streak ended two nights later in Denver and two weeks after that Paul bruised his right kneecap. But for a brief stretch, the wins did not stop. The Clippers went undefeated on a three-game road trip with Eric Bledsoe in Paul’s stead. They beat Memphis by 26 at FedEx Forum and got 30 points from Crawford in a high-scoring win at Houston.
After splitting games on Jan. 19 and 21, with Paul still hobbled but back in the lineup, the Clippers moved to 32-9, the league’s best record. Clippers Vice President of Basketball Operations Gary Sacks called it a “major” accomplishment for the organization.
The Clippers had never owned the best record in the league at the NBA’s midway point. At the time, they were merely 17 wins away from matching their best record in an entire season. They had gone 24-3 after starting 8-6, and it arguably only happened because of how they lost to the Hornets.
Coming soon: Part 3 of the season recap series, looking at the return to health, the alleged struggles with “elite” teams and an All-Star weekend for the ages.