Tight-knit Clippers rolling along
A 14th straight win and an NBA-best 22-6 record are paths to bigger things
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers' Christmas sweaters were terrible. Hideous actually. Each one uglier than the next.
Chris Paul walked into the Clippers' locker room with a sweater vest stitched with a Christmas tree and ornaments. Blake Griffin rolled in with a knitted vest over snowman pajamas. And Matt Barnes looked like a walking Christmas present with ribbons and bows placed on his sweater by his twin boys.
Christmas Day games have become old hat for the team down the hall. The Los Angeles Lakers have played on Christmas Day every year since 1999. This is only the third time the Clippers have played on Christmas Day since 1992.
What was once viewed as a nuisance by players and coaches is now viewed as a sign of respect from the league.
"It usually means you're doing something right," Paul said. "You're on a guy like Blake Griffin's team."
There was no way Paul was going to let this day go by without doing something to commemorate the occasion. Not only did every player arrive to Staples Center wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, but they all brought "Secret Santa" gifts for one another as well.
These aren't activities in which most NBA teams partake. Then again, the Clippers aren't most NBA teams. They are, at least according to the standings, the best team in the NBA.
After beating the Denver Nuggets, 112-100, for their first home win on Christmas Day, the Clippers are not only a league-best 22-6, but they have won a franchise-best 14 straight games, the longest streak in the NBA this season.
Calling the Clippers the best team in Los Angeles, let alone the NBA, used to be the setup to a played out punch line. Anyone who has watched the Clippers this season, however, realizes they're far from a punch line and their success this season is far from an aberration.
After the Lakers defeated the New York Knicks earlier in the day at Staples Center, Dwight Howard smiled when he was told the Lakers were now 14-14 after winning five in a row. "We're .500?" he said. "Yes! I knew this day would come."
While Howard was celebrating the Lakers' 14th win of the season, the Clippers were trying to keep their 14th consecutive win in perspective.
The Clippers didn't begin this season with aspirations of winning 14 straight or starting 22-6 or winning on Christmas Day. Their expectations have always been much higher.
"We always talk about the big picture because this is fool's gold," Paul said. "You don't play for the regular season. ... We still got to keep building. We'll know when we're where we want to be, but we still have a ways to go."
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Griffin's monster dunks (and there were several Tuesday) and Paul's deft passing are the biggest reasons why the Clippers were highlighted on Christmas Day, but their bench and collegiate-like camaraderie may be the biggest reasons why they have the best record in the NBA.
On Christmas Eve, while the Clippers went through a light practice before the game, every player on the team brought their family to the team's training facility.
In the case of Willie Green, that meant bringing his son and daughter, who played basketball with Paul after practice. In the case of Paul, that meant bringing 30 family members who had flown in for the game and were staying at Paul's house before attending the game.
When Paul set out to change the culture of the Clippers, one of the first things he said was everyone on the team had to know one another's family for the Clippers to truly be their own family. Once they trusted one other off the court, they could begin to build that trust on the court.
"I didn't know what anything was like here," Paul said. "I know what the perception was. If I came on a road trip to play here in L.A. against the Clippers we felt like we were going to win. I just wanted it to be different. Blake and I talk about that all the time. We want guys to know when they come in here and play us, they better get some rest the night before. They know they're going to be in for a dogfight.
Most nights, like Christmas night, the Clippers' locker room postgame feels like a living room during the holidays. As players dress and do interviews, their children are running around and playing games with one other. They'll occasionally chime in with their own postgame thoughts, like the time Paul's son, Chris Jr., gave a rundown of his favorite dunkers on the team (his dad didn't make the list). Or will make bulletin-board material, like the time Caron Butler's daughter, Mia, drew a picture of DeAndre Jordan that he now has taped up on his locker.
Griffin has jokingly referred to it as the "Clippers' day care," but it has brought the team closer than any team-bonding activity could.
"Our teammates' kids and nephews love coming in here and we love having them in here," Jordan said. "When they come in here it's like they're on the team. They want to chest bump. I have my own handshakes with some of the kids. That's always fun."
As Jordan answers questions, Griffin is in the background making fun of his mannerisms and trying to interrupt him and make him laugh. It doesn't take long to realize that the biggest kids in the locker room are the players themselves.
When Ronny Turiaf posterized JaVale McGee late in the blowout, the members of the Clippers' bench celebrated as if they were teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert. They had to literally be restrained by coach Vinny Del Negro, who had no chance to restrain the likes of Griffin and Jordan. The dunk was the exclamation point on another solid performance from the bench, which outscored the Nuggets' reserves 64-47.
The Clippers' second team has come to be known as "A Tribe Called Bench," a potent group of scorers and bruisers who not only keep leads but extend them as they did Tuesday, when the Clippers opened up a 21-point advantage with them on the court in the third quarter. The Clippers even handed out shirts before the game with caricatures of each bench player under their nickname.
As well as the Clippers have played, Paul has continually tempered his excitement about the team's start and its current record. He remembers when he was on the New Orleans Hornets five years ago and they had the best record in the league for much of the season and finished 56-26 and the No. 2 playoff seed before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
"I'll never forget that season," Paul said. "I felt like we should have won the championship that season. I remember right before the playoffs started our team met and we said, 'We are an unbelievable team and we can't see a team beating us four times in seven games.' "
Things don't always go according to plan, and Paul's message to his team this season has been to take advantage of this moment and being on this team.
"One thing we keep talking about on this team is those seasons don't come around too often," Paul said. "That was my third year in the league and I felt so good. I felt I would be in that position every year and have a chance to win every year. No. You're not on teams like that every year. Trades happen. Injuries happen. That's why you have to savor these moments and not let them just roll away."
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