CHICAGO – The Clippers have been here before; staring at a four-game road trip on the heels of a lengthy winning streak.
The first trip, despite a rousing opening win in San Antonio, culminated with consecutive double-figure losses, something the Clippers (14-6) are well aware of as they enter the United Center Tuesday to face to Chicago Bulls (11-8).
This time it’s a six-game winning streak on the line for the Clippers, and an opportunity to win their seventh in a row for only the second time since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1984.
“We’ve got a four-game road trip and it starts here in a tough environment,” said point guard Chris Paul, who enters the game averaging 16.1 points and 9.3 assists.
They have seen the Bulls once already, a 101-80 victory in L.A. that capped an impressive series of home wins in November.
“I thought we did a great job defensively, inside-out,” Blake Griffin said of the Clippers’ first meeting with the Bulls. “Really from the very beginning, we did a great job defensively. We had our little faults on offense, but it picked up and we kind of kept going.”
LAST TIME OUT
Clippers 102, Raptors 83: It was as though Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day” from 1993 aired at Staples Center in place of the Clippers’ fourth quarter against the Raptors. Much like 24 hours earlier, when they beat the Phoenix Suns with an “overwhelming” performance by the bench in the fourth quarter, the reserve unit turned a four-point cushion into a 19-point rout. They held Toronto to 3-for-20 shooting in the period and Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe combined for 19 of the Clippers’ 25 points. Crawford finished with 16, extending his streak of games in double figures to 27, and Bledsoe had 14 points, six assists and four rebounds.
“[The bench has] their identity and it starts on defense and they’re doing a great job with that,” said Griffin, who scored a team-high 19 points with nine rebounds. “When we’re all on it, you can see how dangerous we can be.”
Bulls 93, Knicks 85: The host Bulls took advantage of the absence of Carmelo Anthony (finger laceration) and chopped down the high-scoring Knicks, holding them to 32.1% from the floor. Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli, who started in place of Hamilton, scored 22 points apiece and Joakim Noah continued his dominance on the glass with 11 rebounds. Raymond Felton scored a game-high 27 points for the Knicks, but they could not avoid the Bulls winning their third game in a row and fifth in the last six.
Blake Griffin vs. Joakim Noah/Carlos Boozer. When the Bulls visited Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, Head Coach Tom Thibodeau mixed defensive assignments on Griffin, electing to use Noah or Boozer at various times. It hardly mattered who guarded him, though. Griffin scored 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting and pulled down 10 boards. At the time it was viewed as a breakout game for the power forward, who was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday. The Bulls are accustomed to seeing Griffin put together big statistical numbers. They are one of only two teams (New York is the other) in which Griffin has averaged more than 30 points per game against in his career.
On the opposite end of the floor, the Bulls frontcourt tandem is on arguably their best stretch of the season. In the last five games Noah is averaging 13.5 rebounds, including a career-high 23 in a 108-104 win over the Pistons on Dec. 7. Boozer is averaging 15.5 points and 10.8 rebounds over the last 12 games, including his 22-pionts, 12-rebound effort against the Clippers in L.A.
TWO THINGS TO WATCH
Road Effect. The last four-game road trip for the Clippers opened with a five-point win in San Antonio, but the three consecutive losses that followed remained the enduring image from it. On Tuesday they again open the trip with a potential contender and according to Griffin, it will start on the defensive end.
“We started off well on that last trip and had a letdown,” Griffin said. “Really, our main goal or main mindset for this trip is start off tough defensively. Coach read our numbers to us and showed them to us on the board, how much better are defensively at home than we are on the road, so that needs to change.”
The Clippers are 4-3 on the road this season, but have allowed 97.6 points per game (up from 92.8 in home games) on 46.6% shooting (up from 41.8%).
Unstoppable Force vs. Immova-Bull Object. Over the last five games the Clippers are averaging 110.4 points per game. They have been efficient (10.4 turnovers and 49.9% shooting) and imposing at times in transition, tied for first in the league with the Mavericks at 17.5 fast-break points per game on the season.
Chicago, on the other hand, is primed to slow the Clippers down. They hold teams to 42.4% shooting and are one of the league’s better teams at keeping teams out of transition, allowing only 12.7 of their 91.3 opponent’s points per game to come off the break. In some respect, the game could be won by which team’s dominant trait wins out.
“I think we can’t let their defense get set,” Paul said. “I think that’s what makes us so dangerous is we’re explosive in transition. We’ve been that way at home, not so much on the road. We can’t let them get set because I love their defense. Everybody plays with a defensive intensity and that’s why they’re so good.”
Bulls guard Richard Hamilton (foot) is likely to be out. According to the Chicago Tribune, Kirk Hinrich (left elbow) practiced Monday and is expected to play against the Clippers... The Clippers are 17-7 in their last 24 games against the Bulls, including two wins since Del Negro took over the team prior to the 2010-11 season… Through 11 home games, the Bulls have averaged 21,580 fans… Jamal Crawford remains the league’s top bench scorer at 17.9 points per game, but Griffin has edged a couple hundredths of a point ahead of him for the team lead. Crawford has 357 total points, compared to Griffin’s 357… Nate Robinson was a freshman at Rainer Beach High School in Seattle when Crawford was a senior at the school... At 14-6 the Clippers are tied for the second best record after 20 games in franchise history and have equaled the 2005-06 team for the best start in L.A. Clippers history.
Clippers players were posed a number of questions by the Chicago media about Del Negro, who coached for two seasons with the Bulls in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Among those questions, Paul was asked what differences he’s seen playing under Del Negro from his first year in L.A. to now.
“I think he trusts us a lot more,” Paul said. “Obviously, that builds with being with a team a little bit longer and then he sees in our locker room how we have me, Caron Butler, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill and all that, guys that know the game and have been around the league.”