Look out, Marco Belinelli! (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
It's not easy to play pretty basketball against Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls. Thibs' teams have led the league in defensive efficiency (the number of points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of his two full seasons, and are tied for second so far this year; when you drill down a bit, you see that they've consistently ranked among the NBA's best teams in preventing points off turnovers, on the fast break and in the paint. They play at a bottom-third-of-the-league pace, they grind out half-court possessions with relentless ball pressure and precise rotations, and they don't give opponents easy buckets. That's kind of their thing.
So it was a little bit amazing to see the Los Angeles Clippers do so much dunking on the Bulls on Tuesday, even though, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in tow, dunking is obviously kind of their thing.
It started early, with Griffin on the receiving end of this Chris Paul lob:
It reached a fever pitch in the second quarter with a string of end-to-end aerial acrobatics:
By my count, the Clips got 10 dunks on Tuesday night — six by Griffin, three by Jordan and one on a nice fourth-quarter baseline cut by Matt Barnes — en route their 94-89 road win in Chicago, which was L.A.'s seventh straight victory, giving them the league's second-longest ongoing winning streak behind the Oklahoma City Thunder's current eight-game run.
The game, for sure, was not always as pretty as those lobs — the two teams combined to shoot 15 for 45 in the opening 12 minutes, with Griffin (1 for 6) and Belinelli (1 for 7) in particular struggling with their offense out of the gate. But things did loosen up a bit later, with the Bulls finding a surprising long-range stroke — 9 for 14 from 3-point land through the first three quarters, far outstripping the four-made-long-balls-per-game average that, as TBJ's Trey Kerby noted, they'd managed before Tuesday night — and the Clippers getting out in the open court by forcing turnovers with their own half-court defense.
But Chicago cooled off from deep in the final frame, Griffin (eight points on 4-for-6 shooting) got hot, the reserve duo of Barnes and Eric Bledsoe (10 total points on 4-for-6 shooting) offered some punch off the pine and Paul (five game-icing points in the final 27 seconds) carried the Clips home.
That four-dunks-in-two-minutes second-quarter stretch upset Thibodeau, who said after the game he felt it was a turning point in the proceedings:
"The end of the second quarter changed the game," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We started dancing with the ball. When you do that it leads to turnovers, live ball, and transition baskets for them. We shot ourselves in the foot there.
"You can't do that against good teams."
The Clips totaled 11 steals and five blocks on Tuesday, forced 17 Chicago turnovers and scored 22 points off those cough-ups, with many of the giveaways leading directly to transition opportunities, including several high-flying finishes. That kind of swarming, opportunistic activity has helped coach Vinny Del Negro's team take a massive leap forward on the defensive end thus far this season; through 21 games, the Clippers are allowing 99.1 points per 100 possessions, the league's seventh-best mark, way up from last year's 18th-place finish (102.9-per-100) and the team's 19th-place run (106.3-per-100) in 2010-11, Del Negro's first year on the Clipper bench.
We always knew they were going to score like gangbusters, with an artisan facilitator in Paul on the ball alongside Griffin, one of the league's most gifted frontcourt scorers. But like their Pacific Division counterparts, the Golden State Warriors, what's made the Clips double-tough thus far this season has been their ability to translate their players' athleticism into defensive stops and instant offense. When they're able to get out and run, these Clips can turn even the league's best grind-it-out-and-slow-you-down squads into unwilling extras in the only version of Showtime running in Los Angeles these days.