It was six years in the making. The last time the Los Angeles Clippers arrived to the big dance, Sam Cassell was doing the big balls dance, Elton Brand had the best year of his career, and the Kaman Islands were invaded by Reggie Evans.
Fast forward to 2012. With the Denver Nuggets defeating the Houston Rockets last night, the Clippers clinched a playoff spot. Going out and taking care of the Thunder with a 92-77 victory was just the icing on the cake. Having taken the season series 3-1 vs. arguably the best team in the league is a huge confidence builder for a team who is peaking at the right time. The Clippers have won 12 of their last 14 games ever since the debacle in New Orleans(aka Jason Smith Bounty-gate).
That is not to say this team hasn't seen its ups and downs this year. After a 15-7 start, things were smooth sailing. And then Chauncey Billups tore his ACL, ending his season. The team managed to stay afloat, improving to 19-9. But then they went into a tailspin, going 7-11 in their next 18 games to drop to 26-21, culminated by a 0-3 road trip in which they were blown out in Indiana, Oklahoma City, and gave up a huge lead to New Orleans. At that point , everyone and their moms were calling for Vinny Del Negro's head. According to Bill Simmons, he was on extremely thin ice and Assistant Coach Robert Pack was on the verge of being anointed as the interim coach. However, Donald Sterling wanted to give VDN one more chance. The Clippers ended up running the table on their five game homestand and winning six straight overall.
Del Negro's position had essentially been saved. More importantly, the Clippers' season had been saved. With last night's win, they improved to 38-23, just one game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the Pacific Division lead. The team has improved in quite a few ways, most notably defensively. They played an effective zone defense, leading to poor shooting nights by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in general. Nick Young played very good defense on Durant with his length, but also had his best offensive output with 19 points on 7-10 FG.
Another key player has been Eric Bledsoe. Sidelined early in the year due to an injury, he was an afterthought. Even when he returned, Del Negro used him sparingly. However, when Mo Williams suffered a toe injury, it was Bledsoe's opportunity and step in and contribute. And that he did. He easily became the Clippers' best perimeter defender. His superior athleticism allows him to outrebound and block guys much taller than him. And it looks like he's now secured a spot in the rotation, as he will be key in the playoffs.
We know what Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can do, but the emergence of role players such as Young, Bledsoe, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Mo Williams, and Kenyon Martin adds a whole new dynamic to this team. The Clippers are on cloud nine and will continue to try and end the season on a high note. It's been six long years, but playoffs, here we come.
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