The Clippers' season has really been three mini-seasons, zigging one way and zagging another and back again as they try to sort out who they are and what they can become.
Their disjointed play at the start of the season was reflected in a 5-4 record. They then righted themselves with a spectacular 11-1 run, which included a 6-1 trip and the foundation of the seven-game home winning streak they took into Thursday's game against Golden State at Staples Center.
It was inevitable that they'd cool off, but they went beyond that to cold, losing five of eight games before rallying for an impossible-to-analyze 100-86 comeback victory over the Warriors on Thursday to launch a nine-game homestand and end a stretch of five games in seven nights in five cities.
Their performance Thursday was as inconsistent as their season has been as a whole.
The Warriors, who sat in Los Angeles all week after their bad loss to the Lakers at Staples Center on Tuesday, seemed determined to erase the memory of that defeat and nearly ran the Clippers off the floor in the early going. After DeAndre Jordan's dunk 15 seconds into the game, the Clippers went 0 for 17 until Jamal Crawford hit a 15-foot jump shot with 3:18 left in the first quarter. Three of their five starters had no points until well into the second quarter, yet they went ahead by as many as seven points late in the third quarter — taking their first lead since that Jordan dunk — and gave the sellout crowd one last large dose of Christmas cheer.
That lead grew to 20 in the fourth quarter as the team that couldn't hit anything in the first quarter suddenly couldn't miss. Here's confirmation of how strange this game was: The Clippers were the better team at the free throw line, outshooting the Warriors, 74.2% to 54.5%.
All of which leads to one question:
Will the Clippers zig next, or will they zag? Will they take off on a winning streak or continue to go sideways, getting little scoring from their second unit and inconsistent defensive efforts throughout the lineup?
One win doesn't solve all of their problems, even if it was an entertaining and improbable victory over the league-leading Warriors (23-5). Jamal Crawford was the Clippers' only effective player off the bench Thursday — once again — as he scored a game-high 24 points. And they still have work to do defensively, even though they held Golden State to its lowest point total this season.
But this was fun, more amusing even than Spencer Hawes' specially made red-white-and-green Christmas tree blazer and comically short pants, the kind of emotional win a nicked-up, road-weary team needed to lift its spirits in the middle of a tough schedule.
During his pregame news conference, Coach Doc Rivers insisted he saw the Clippers improving, figuring things out, putting things together cohesively enough to soon go on a roll. Not many people shared his vision. Some wondered whether he'd indulged in too much Christmas fruitcake while waiting to begin the last game of the NBA's day-long holiday showcase.
But it was a little easier to see his point after the Clippers' comeback, after they had to fight for something they wanted and overcame a terrible start, horrible shooting night and the distractions of holiday celebrations to get it.
As exhilarating as it was, Rivers brushed off suggestions that this might prove to be a confidence booster for his team. "We believe we're good anyway," he said. Nor would he call this their best win this season.
"I couldn't tell you who we've beaten," he said. "Yeah, I guess. I don't judge wins It's still nice to beat them. They're good."
Sometimes, teams come together quickly. Other times, they need 20 or 30 or more games to bond and find their footing.
"This team has clearly been one of the gradual-growth teams," he said. "You've just got to ride it."
On Thursday, they rode it to a win that made for great drama. Whether it starts another zig-zag, this time upward, will be up to the Clippers the next few games.