A SEASON TO REMEMBER: PART 3
The up-and-down second half of the season, return to health and an All-Star Weekend unlike any other for the Clippers.
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When the 17-game winning streak ended on New Year’s Day, the Clippers still had four calendar months remaining in the season.
January marked somewhat of turning point in the way things unfolded in the remainder of the regular season. The Clippers lost for the first time since November, lost for the first time at home in 13 games and lost Chris Paul for 12 of the next 14 when he bruised his right kneecap in a collision with J.J. Redick in the final minutes of an unexpected home loss to the Orlando Magic, a team that finished with the NBA’s worst record.
Ten days after Paul first suffered the injury, the Clippers faced off against the Oklahoma City Thunder without him. The teams owned the top two records in the league and while the luster that reflected off such a matchup was clearly not as bright without one of four Western Conference All-Stars in uniform, it was arguably one of the biggest games in the regular season to that point.
The Clippers sprinted ahead early, leading by eight in the final minutes of the first quarter, but the Thunder, behind 32 points from MVP runner-up Kevin Durant, won by a dozen. That loss marked the beginning of a series of losses to teams considered amongst the NBA’s “elite.” After defeating all of the top teams, sans Oklahoma City, in November and December, the Clippers suddenly could not win those same games in the season’s second half.
There were losses to Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City (for a third time), Denver and Memphis. Four of those six came at Staples Center after the All-Star break. However, the assessment that the Clippers were incapable in the second half of defeating the NBA’s best teams simply rang untrue. They won on Mar. 1 at Indiana, an Eastern Conference finalist and a month earlier in New York, a team with more wins than any team in the East outside of Miami, and, of course, they won 91-87 at Memphis to help secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The win at Madison Square Garden, at the time, seemed like a panacea. It was two days after four injured Clippers returned to the lineup in Miami and marked the second of 17 games in the regular season that the team had its full complement of players available. The Knicks were a 32-win team at the time and vying for the East’s top seed and despite a 42-point effort by Carmelo Anthony, they were overmatched by the Clippers. In a blink, the Miami game seemed like a passing glance in a review mirror, a speed bump.
Three wins later, including a dominant 125-point outing against the Lakers on Valentine’s Day, sent the healthy Clippers into All-Star Weekend on another high note, similar to how they entered 2013.
Paul, Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe, who was a participant in the dunk contest, arrived in Houston following the win over the Lakers in L.A. A few hours later, they were on the media circuit at the downtown Hilton. A sleepy-eyed Griffin called the turnaround a “whirlwind” and Paul said everything was a “daze.” All three players had been to All-Star Weekend before, Bledsoe as a rookie for the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge and Paul and Griffin multiple times, but never had they been a part of it together. Griffin offered help to Bledsoe in the dunk contest. Paul was a “coach” for all of the Saturday night festivities. The young guard delivered, earning a perfect 50 on his second dunk of the night, and missing out on an appearance in the finals by a single point.
Twenty-four hours later, Paul put together a majestic All-Star Sunday, earning the first-ever MVP by a Los Angeles Clippers player with 20 points, 15 assists and four steals. He took over the game when it mattered most, scoring, dishing and leading a team with Griffin, Durant, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook alongside him.
In April, when the Clippers played in San Antonio, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who headed the West All-Stars, talked about getting to coach Paul and Griffin in that setting. He called Griffin “special” and said the superstar forward “hasn’t even tapped what he’s going to be three years from now, five years from now” and called Paul a “helluva player.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Popovich said of All-Star 2013. “[Blake] and Chris were great. You walk in the room and all of those guys are in there, it’s pretty humbling.”
The All-Star experience, coupled with the four wins that preceded it, was thought to have set the Clippers up for a second half that greatly resembled the first, and a deep playoff run to cap it. But things hardly worked as planned.
Coming soon: Part 4 of the season recap series, discussing the seven-game winning streak to close the regular season, the playoffs and going back to Memphis.