LOS ANGELES — The best way to get attention in the NBA is still good, old-fashioned winning, and so the best team in the league’s better division is surely getting way more focus than usual, right? Okay, perhaps not way more. A little, tiny bit extra?
“What attention?” puzzled Los Angeles Clippers forward Tobias Harris said on Wednesday night. “Uh, I guess. I don’t know.
In truth, the Clippers are still a distant second in a two-horse race when it comes to snaring the spotlight in their own city. But on the court they are handily outperforming those neighborly Lakers and hurriedly proving that Twitter followers and media mentions don’t buy wins.
Wednesday night’s comfortable home victory over the Phoenix Suns was the Clippers’ ninth straight at Staples Center and 10th in 12 games overall. They lead the Western Conference with a 14-6 record.
The defending champion Golden State Warriors and a raft of highly-credentialed chasers are in hot pursuit, but now is the time to challenge the perception that the Clippers’ early spurt is a bubble waiting to pop.
For there is no quirk in the schedule that can easily be used to explain away L.A.’s unexpected surge, not with an even number of home and road games and one of the league’s tougher schedules so far.
And while teams around the NBA and those who follow the association are readjusting their expectations for the Clippers, no one knows quite how much of a shift in thinking is necessary. For not even head coach Doc Rivers himself knows just how good his team could prove to be.
“I think we have a lot of improvements (still to make), I really do,” Rivers said. “We have guys that haven’t played together much or are coming back. I like our team and we’re going to get better. How good? I’ll let you know later.”
Twenty games isn’t a monumental sample size but it is big enough to rule out a fluky spurt. The Clippers’ run has been built on sweat and toil and intangible extra efforts that have both brought the team together as a unit while simultaneously super-charging its performances.
“We are happy but it is just the beginning,” forward Danilo Gallinari said. “Unselfishness is the DNA of this team, that’s what is going to take to win games and that the secret of being successful.”
Something can’t really be a secret if it is spoken about openly, but that’s the whole point. The Clippers’ special ingredients of checking their egos, collective spirit, incessant work and claustrophobic defense, are known to everyone. Yet few opponents have found an effective antidote, with the Warriors, Bucks, Thunder and Trailblazers among the victims.
You can’t work out the Clippers, you have to outwork them, and that is no easy task.
Gallinari, averaging 19.1 points per game, is having an outstanding year, and L.A. will wish for his continued health, but this is a deep roster down to the 10th spot. Harris (21.4 points, 2.3 assists, 8.8 rebounds) may be positioning himself for All-Star consideration, Lou Williams is a nerveless closer, Avery Bradley a defensive master and Montrezl Harrell a swashbuckling paint presence displaying vast improvement over last season.
And now is when we may find out what the Clippers are really made of. They are imperious at home, but are about to embark upon a road trip to Sacramento, Dallas, New Orleans and Memphis. If the Clippers can emerge for its week of travel still heading up the West, then even the biggest doubters will have to start accepting that this is no blip.
It doesn’t feel like a blip, and though the status of conference leader will likely slip from the Clippers’ shoulders at some stage, it should not be taken as given that the team will swiftly free fall down the standings.
For the system is simple, and the outcome so far has been simply outstanding.
“We are just trying to win every game we play in,” point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, L.A.’s youngest and most promising player, said. “Seems like we are doing a good job of that right now.”
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