A game against a borderline playoff contender in early November might not seem all that significant for a team that hopes to play its way deep into June.
Don’t tell the Clippers. It’s precisely the kind of game they know could help them reach their intended destination.
Every victory seems to count a little more in the crazy-competitive Western Conference, where the Clippers continue to thrive in the season’s early going.
They pushed through some shaky moments for a 102-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Monday night at Staples Center, the outcome secured when the Clippers made just enough free throws in the final minute.
Blake Griffin collected 22 points and 10 rebounds to help the Clippers improve to 4-0 for the first time since the 2007-08 season and remain tied with Golden State as the only remaining unbeaten teams in their conference. The Clippers will face the Warriors on Wednesday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
“Hopefully I don’t say anything dumb in the next 48 hours and we can just play basketball,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, alluding to the epic verbal exchanges between the teams. “Don’t bet on it.”
Griffin’s superlative play has been the one given for the Clippers. His 19-foot jumper with 1:36 left gave them a 98-93 lead and they made four of six free throws the rest of the way to log their eighth consecutive victory against the Suns
Phoenix might have gotten away with an intentional foul on the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan with 35 seconds left when Tyson Chandler pushed his counterpart as Jordan moved to set a screen. Jordan made one of two free throws to give the Clippers a 99-94 cushion.
The Suns’ comeback bid fizzled when they missed their last three shots, par for the course on a night in which they shot 36.7%. The Clippers also struggled with their shooting, particularly from beyond the three-point line, making eight of 27 shots.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul scored 17 points but was uncharacteristically unsteady with the ball, his five turnovers matching his assist total. Paul was unhappy with other areas of his game as well.
“We’ve got to defend better,” Paul said. “We can’t have those stretches where we let teams get comfortable and get whatever they want, but we’ve got to get wins at the same time.”
The Clippers spent much of their summer lamenting a handful of games they felt they gave away last season.
It became an issue because one more victory in the regular season would have given the Clippers second place in the West and home-court advantage in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. Instead, they traveled to Houston and got trampled by the Rockets.
“Those types of games, they do matter in the end if you do look big picture,” Clippers guard J.J. Redick said at the morning shoot-around.
Rivers said his players’ new appreciation for the regular season formed organically, without prompting from him. Reserve forward Josh Smith flashed some playoff intensity late in the third quarter, making two three-pointers and throwing a lob to Wesley Johnson for a dunk.
“I thought the bench turned the game around with their energy, especially in the third quarter,” Rivers said. “I just want one game where both units play well at the same time.”
The bench also helped the Clippers end the first half on a 24-5 run, including 15 straight points with Griffin and Paul on the bench, to take a 48-39 halftime lead.