Entering Wednesday's game against the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers had -- count 'em! -- nine road wins over .500-or-better teams this season, and there had been a common theme to every one.
The team would keep things close for the first 45 or so minutes, and then point guard Chris Paul would take things over down the stretch and lead his teammates to a triumphant victory.
Wednesday's 104-98 win was the exact opposite.
Paul had a fine game, with 21 points and eight assists in 35 minutes, but he was at his best in the third quarter -- not in the fourth. He actually struggled mightily in the final minutes, shooting 0-for-5 in meaningful situations and appearing downright exhausted at various key moments.
But his teammates, including veteran reserves Kenyon Martin and Mo Williams, were at their best.
Williams made three 3-pointers in one three-minute stretch in the fourth, including a ridiculous 33-footer as the shot clock expired. In a key sequence in the final minute, Martin tipped in a missed jumper from Paul and then blocked a Ty Lawson layup on Denver's next possession to seal the game for the Clippers and give them a magic number of just two to secure home-court advantage in a likely first-round NBA playoff matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies.
"I don't know what it was," Paul said in a postgame interview on the TV broadcast, in explaining his poor play in the fourth period. "But that's why you're a team."
Funny: The Clippers haven't always looked like a team down the stretch this season. They've looked like Chris Paul and four other guys on the court for moral support. How many times has Paul seemingly free-styled and come up with a key shot attempt almost on his own? Too many to count.
And, sure, he's proven to be a potent playoff performer. But it's unreasonable to expect those kind of heroics four different times in a seven-game stretch. That's why it's so important that the Clippers' alternative late-game sources start to come through, with the playoffs now literally just 10 days away.
They started off Wednesday's game in a deep hole, down a dozen at the end of the first. And they slowly worked their way back with balanced scoring. A brief collapse at the end of the third looked at one point like it might cost the Clippers the game, but Nick Young hit a key 3-pointer to stop the bleeding and Williams hit shot after shot in the fourth to boost them over the feisty Nuggets.
The Clippers (39-23) have now won five straight contests and an impressive 13 of their last 15. Only the San Antonio Spurs can match that in the NBA.
"You want to be able win some ugly games," Williams said after the game on the broadcast. "I think during this 13 out of 15, we’ve won some ugly games."
Four games remain on the Clippers' regular-season docket, beginning Thursday night in Phoenix and ending a week from Wednesday in New York. But three of the four will be games similar to Wednesday's -- road contests against over-.500 squads.
So there will be more tests in the coming days. The Clippers don't need to pass all of them, with resting key players becoming paramount if home-court advantage and the fourth seed are locked in late, but flying through another one or two would work wonders.