First at last. The Clippers have been the NBA’s hottest team for days and weeks now. They finally moved atop the league’s overall standings with a resounding 112-100 victory Tuesday night over the Denver Nuggets in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 19,346 at Staples Center.
The victory extended the Clippers’ franchise-record winning streak to 14 games and they improved their overall mark to 22-6, a half-game better than second-place Oklahoma City. The Thunder (21-6) lost earlier in the day to the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.
As far as anyone in Clippers Nation could figure, it was the first time the team was in first place overall as late as Christmas Day. The Clippers are off to the best start in their inglorious history, propelled there by their remarkable winning streak.
“It’s nice, but it’s Christmas and we’ve got a long way to go, a lot of games to play and a lot of improving to do,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said, obviously unimpressed. “If you watched that fourth quarter, you could see that. I’m not happy with that fourth quarter.”
The Clippers broke open Tuesday’s game with a 42-point second quarter that staggered the Nuggets (15-14). Although their intensity and efficiency ebbed and flowed dramatically after halftime, and particularly in the fourth quarter, they had a big enough cushion to win handily.
“I did not like the way we finished the game, I can tell you that,” Del Negro said. “The players know it. I thought we were very sloppy at the end of the fourth quarter. I didn’t like the intensity defensively. It looked like a layup drill out there for (the Nuggets).”
Denver outscored the Clippers 24-19 in the final period, which resembled open gym at times rather than a hotly-contested NBA game on national TV. The Clippers’ lead, which was 21 points at its highest, dwindled to a little as 10 with the second unit on the floor.
Jamal Crawford, a backup shooting guard, and Matt Barnes, a reserve small forward, led the Clippers with 22 and 20 points, respectively. Crawford scored nine points in the pivotal second quarter and Barnes had 12 on 5-for-7 shooting.
Point guard Chris Paul led the Clippers’ starters with 14 points and eight assists on the one-year anniversary of his Clippers debut. Power forward Blake Griffin added 13 points, six rebounds and six assists. None of the starters played more than 32 minutes.
“It wasn’t really about making anything different for me because I hadn’t been here,” Paul said, looking back to last Christmas. “I didn’t know what anything was like. I knew what the perception was. I knew if I came on a road trip to L.A., I thought we were going to win.”
That’s changed dramatically since Paul’s arrival in a trade from the New Orleans Hornets The Clippers can look down on the rest of the league today. They’ll try for their 15th consecutive victory Thursday, when they host the Boston Celtics.