Short-handed again, playing their fourth game in five days, the Clippers might have been excused Monday night if they’d faltered down the stretch against one of the NBA’s hottest teams and its most celebrated young player.
But it was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers who stumbled toward the finish, the Clippers surging late to a 94-82 victory that stretched their winning streak to four games in front of 16,465 in Staples Center.
Minus injured veterans Corey Maggette and Kerry Kittles, the Clippers outscored the Cavaliers, 24-14, in the fourth quarter to run their record to 9-6, wrapping up their most successful November since the franchise left Buffalo, N.Y.
Led by Bobby Simmons, who made all four of his shots and scored nine of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, they put together a 14-2 run after the Cavaliers had trimmed a 16-point deficit to 73-72 with 9 minutes 40 seconds left.
“It says a lot for this team that we were able to fight them off to win this game,” said Elton Brand, who made 12 of 22 shots and led the Clippers with a season-high 30 points.
“We really stepped up our defense.”
James, who scored 12 of his 22 points in the third quarter to get the Cavaliers close, missed all three of his shots and scored only two points in the fourth quarter, when the Cavaliers missed 11 of 16 shots, 10 of 11 at one point.
The Clippers, meanwhile, shot 60% in the fourth quarter.
“We’re getting really good defensive play out of our guys,” Coach Mike Dunleavy said, “and we’re getting really good ball movement.”
Marko Jaric continued his string of strong games, scoring 16 points to go with 11 assists, and backup center Mikki Moore scored 13 points.
The Clippers, since their move to Southern California in 1978, had taken a winning record into December only once before, in 1992, when they were 7-6 en route to a 41-41 record in Larry Brown’s only full season as coach.
But Dunleavy claimed that when the Clipper roster came together last summer, adding depth, he expected nothing less.
“Yeah, but I didn’t know we’d do it with the injuries we’ve had,” he said before the game. “I thought, given the guys we had ... and the expected rotation, I felt good about it, felt like we would play well.
“When we started the season with [Kittles] and [Chris Kaman] on the injured list, it was different. It was like, ‘Wow, we need to have a good start, but we could be a little bit at risk.’ But other guys have come in and obviously played very well for us.... I don’t know if we’ve overachieved, but I think we’ve come together maybe quicker than anticipated. Being so young and new to each other, I thought I might see this further down the road a little bit.”
A soft early schedule has helped. Five of the Clippers’ first eight victories came against last-place teams, three against the Golden State Warriors.
The surging Cavaliers were a different story. They’d won nine of 10 after a 0-3 start, led by James, who won’t turn 20 until Dec. 30 but already is staking his claim as the NBA’s preeminent perimeter player.
“His poise, his confidence -- all the mental aspects that you need -- have jelled with the physical, which was already there,” Coach Paul Silas said before the game of James, who was averaging 26.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists. “He played more on the physical than the mental last year; he’s doing both this year, and as a result he’s just having a terrific year....
“Whatever we need, he’s providing.”
But James provided only two points in the first quarter as the Clippers, led by Brand, raced to a 24-10 lead.
Brand and Chris Wilcox, taking advantage of the Cavaliers’ leaky interior defense, combined for 21 points in the first 12 minutes, Brand scoring 13 on six-of-eight shooting and Wilcox eight on four-of-six shooting.
Brand, who also had five assists, scored the Clippers’ first five points in the second quarter too, helping stretch the lead to 15 points.
James started to heat up toward the end of the second quarter, scoring six consecutive Cavalier points, but at halftime the Clippers still led, 52-41.