Heading into Sunday night's matchup with the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers small forward Caron Butler had struggled a bit with his stroke in the first quarter of games this season. According to NBA.com's stat tool, the 11th-year swingman out of UConn had connected on just 38.5 percent of his field-goal attempts in opening frames, and just 26.3 percent from long distance.
Clearly, Butler felt a bit warmer off the tip than normal at Staples Center on Sunday:
The 32-year-old wing was white-hot to start out, hitting six of his eight shots — including a perfect 5 for 5 mark from 3-point range — in the first quarter on Sunday, pouring in 17 points in 12 minutes to get the Clips out to an early lead over the Jazz. Unlike their Thursday night whitewashing of the Boston Celtics, though, the Clippers didn't ride the strong-shooting start to a comfortable, run-away-and-hide type of victory over Utah.
As they did in the Clips' hard-fought Friday night road win, Tyrone Corbin's Jazz battled throughout, staying within hailing distance of the team with the NBA's best record and actually recapturing the lead late in the third quarter. It took a late Clipper run behind some stiff defense (Utah didn't manage a field goal in the final 3:38) and — believe it or not — some timely free-throw shooting from DeAndre Jordan (the big man went 5 for 6 down the stretch) to seal a 107-96 win that extended their franchise-record winning streak to 17 games, pushed their NBA-best record to 25-6 and capped off just the third undefeated month turned in by any team in league history.
While Butler didn't play a tick in the deciding fourth quarter — a relatively common occurrence in coach Vinny Del Negro's rotation, as Butler's only gotten final-quarter minutes in nine of his 30 appearances on the season — his odd-quarter contributions were massive. In addition to his 17-point opener, Caron kicked in 12 points on 4 for 5 shooting in the third, which were pivotal buckets, considering nobody else in red, white and blue could get anything going after halftime; Butler's teammates combined to shoot 4 for 17 in the quarter, which saw Utah rip off a 17-4 run that turned a double-digit affair into a bit of a nail-biter.
If not for Butler's injection of offense, Utah might've turned the tables entirely, rather than just managed a brief reversal of fortune; instead, the Clips stayed above-water enough for designated reserve closer Jamal Crawford (11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter) to take them home and finish December unbeaten.
All told, Butler finished with a game-high 29 points on 10 for 14 shooting and a flawless 6 for 6 from beyond the arc to lead L.A. in the win, marking the second time this season he's been Del Negro's high scorer. On a night where Blake Griffin was hampered by double-teams and foul trouble (just seven points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes for L.A.'s leading scorer) and the Clips' vaunted bench didn't provide quite the same kick that it normally does (non-Crawford reserves chipped in just 14 points on 18 shots), each of Butler's buckets proved huge in the final analysis.
The vet credited his colleagues, but the All-Star power forward gave credit where it was due, according to Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times:
"My teammates were definitely keeping me open," Butler said.
"Caron was out of his mind," Griffin said.
And it was just crazy enough to keep the league's longest-running winning streak — and most remarkable success story — rolling into the new year.
Video via dorell15.