If you were watching Thursday night's NBA action on TNT, the late-running opener between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks — pushed to overtime thanks to this absurd, one-of-a-kind buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Darren Collison — meant that you joined the West Coast contest between the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics already in progress. And when you saw that the score was already 18-4 less than six minutes into the first quarter, you might have been surprised and dismayed (especially if you bleed kelly green).
Celtics coach Doc Rivers was surely the latter after his team's painful 106-77 blowout loss at the hands of the NBA's hottest (and, right now, best) team, but he probably wasn't the former — after all, in discussing his pregame hope to keep the high-flying Clippers off the highlight reels by sending them to the foul line, Rivers said, “It’s tough to foul a guy when he’s 10 feet above you.” And after the Clippers had hammered Boston not only from above, but from everywhere — inside (shooting 77.3 percent at the rim, according to Hoopdata) and out (12 of 30 from 3-point land); offense (scoring at a crazy 116.5 points per 100 possessions rate, better than the league's best season averages), defense (choking Boston's offense into something sub-Wizards) and special teams (as good a way as any of describing that dominant bench, which chipped in 53 points, 23 rebounds, 14 assists, eight steals and six blocks) — Doc gave L.A. a telling, stamp-of-approval joke. From ESPN.com's J.A. Adande:
Opposing coaches keep raving, with Doc Rivers offering the greatest tribute to date: "After that we're going to hide some money in the ceiling."
If that seems like an odd non-sequitur to you, let me jog your memory and cast your mind back to June 2010, where our own Kelly Dwyer shared a story about a slightly scuffling veteran team and its confident coach making a grand gesture:
Following a win over the Lakers last February, Celtics coach Doc Rivers demanded $100 each from Boston's players, coaching staff, and even team managers. He stuffed the dough in an envelope, and told his team — his entire traveling organization, really — that they can have the money back the next time they play the Lakers inside the Staples Center.
The kicker? This was after the team's only game inside the Staples Center during the regular season. They weren't going to make it back inside that locker room unless the team made it back to the NBA Finals, some 3 1/2 months later. This was the only scenario that would see Rivers being able to take his team's cash back, and at the time of the stashing, it seemed a long shot for the Celtics to even make it back to Staples within the year.
The joke, of course, is that the Celtics — now 14-14 and sent crashing back to terra firma following their Christmas Day beatdown of the rudderless Brooklyn Nets — didn't exactly looking like the conference-winning fires of old on Thursday night, as they haven't on a number of nights so far this season. (Don't you love it when people explain jokes?) Beyond that, though, the referential dust-off of the ol' money-in-the-ceiling motivational tactic conflates Hollywood's long-time little brother with the perennial title-contending Lakers. What's weird these days is that, for perhaps the first time ever, it's the Clippers who seem like a far safer bet to go the distance than either the green or the gold.
Through 29 games, the Clippers have the NBA's fourth-best offense (scoring 107.7 points per 100 possessions) and, shockingly, its second-best defense (allowing just 96.6-per-100), according to NBA.com's stat tool. They haven't lost in more than a month, thanks in part to better ball control and continued defensive havoc-wreaking — L.A.'s turned it over on just 13.1 percent of their offensive possessions over the last 15 games, down from 17.6 percent through their first 14, while continuing to force turnovers on more than 18 percent of opponents' possessions, the best mark in the league. When the Clips aren't giving away possessions, Chris Paul can freely use his gifts as the world's best half-court orchestrator to get good looks for everybody virtually whenever he wants; when they're taking the ball away, they activate their transition game, which, as we've seen, is pretty dang explosive.
They get contributions from everybody, from likely All-Star starters Paul and Blake Griffin through game-changing reserves Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe all the way to the much maligned Lamar Odom, who's finally starting to resemble an NBA player after a year where basketball "wasn't there" for him. The former Sixth Man of the Year's stat line against Boston was impressive enough — 4 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks and no turnovers in 29 minutes — but perhaps just as impressive was how actively he was working along the Clips' back line, moving his feet to deny Boston bigs like Brandon Bass easy catches on the block, sliding his feet with timely rotations to meet Celtics drivers at the rim and seeming to be someone at home acting as an anchor in the middle of an aggressive, attacking defense.
Odom's resurgent performance was the cherry on top of a night on which every Clipper who dressed played, scored and made some type of positive contribution; as Rivers said after the game when a reporter noted that most NBA teams have good players, "Yeah, but most teams don't have 11 of them." And that's without injured veterans Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, both of whom you'd expect to play some nature of role with these Clippers before the season's out.
Of course, the dark side of depth reveals itself when there are too many players for too few minutes, which was our concern heading into this season — when everyone's healthy, there'll be a lot of mouths to feed, and how effectively coach Vinny Del Negro can juggle his players' minutes will go a long way toward determining if L.A. can be a line-changing playoff monster or a giant felled by in-fighting and ego. For now, though, the juggling act is working to the tune of 15 straight wins and near-nightly blowouts, a level of success that few expected and that Clippers backup big man Ronny Turiaf says doesn't even have the team working at its peak. From Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times:
"I was just talking to Jamal about it and he said, 'Man, we just won 15 games in a row.' And I was like, 'It sure don't feel like it,'" Turiaf said. "We still feel like we have room to improve. We still feel like we can get better in certain areas. We're looking forward to the challenge.
"To be honest with you we're not even thinking about it. It's weird. We're just having fun. Life is too short to worry about the future, to worry about all that stuff. We're in the now right now, we're having a blast, and that's what life should be all about: Take care of yourself, have fun, play for each other and just hope for the rest. We're just trying to ride the wave."
How long that wave will last remains to be seen — their next six games come against Western Conference playoff contenders, with a three-game post-New Year's stretch featuring a pair against the Golden State Warriors broken up by an in-house slugfest with the Lakers seeming to offer stern tests — but for now, they're looking like a million bucks. Or, at least, whatever pocket money Doc could round up to tuck away behind a ceiling tile. (Probably only like a half-mill.)