It’s December, not the second round of the playoffs.
The “are these Clippers really different?” question remains.
But faced with their first big test of the season — having three ugly road losses in a row then taking on the defending NBA champions — the Clippers aced it. Los Angeles got red-hot shooting from J.J. Redick, strong defense from Luc Mbah a Moute on LeBron James, and Los Angeles just simply outworked and out-executed the defending champs.
The result was a 113-94 Los Angeles win.
For the Cavaliers, it is the kind of game they can shrug off as one where they just came out flat. It happens. Kyrie Irving did have 28 (and picked up a technical) if you want a bright spot.
For the Clippers, this is the kind of victory that suggests the maturity they will need to get to the conference finals come the playoffs. There’s a lot of basketball between now and May, the big questions remain to be answered, but for a Clipper team feeling the pressure of change next summer, the Clippers couldn’t have looked better acing their first test.
“We actually played to our potential,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “I thought we had some adversity, which is great, Chris (Paul) gets in foul trouble, and we actually extend the lead.”
What had gone wrong the last three games — road losses to Detroit, Indiana, and Brooklyn — was a combination of offensive struggles and the bench, which had been playing well early, struggling on defense.
Nobody should have thought the Clippers offensive woes would be a long-term issue. It seemed like this one might be another when Chris Paul got two early fouls, but J.J. Redick was brilliant — 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, 5-of-6 from three, plus a lot of great playmaking, and that was all before halftime. Redick only finished with 23 because it was plenty because of Paul (16 points, nine assists) and Los Angeles’ ball movement — 33 assists on 42 made baskets.
As for the Clipper bench, they played like they had to start the season and finished the game with 18 more points than their Cavaliers’ counterparts. More importantly, the Clipper bench defense was good all night.
But if you’re talking defense, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute performance keeping LeBron James in check — 16 points on 5-of-14 shooting — was huge. Quietly this season Mbah a Moute has been doing what the Clippers have needed from the three spot for years: play great defense and knock down corner threes. Mbah a Moute is having his best defensive season in years, and he entered the game shooting 42 percent from the corners.
“I thought defensively, we were just locked in, and the reason was we respected them,” Rivers said postgame, not meaning to but throwing shade at Indiana and Brooklyn. “They’re the Cleveland Cavaliers, they get your respect. They get your attention.”
The first quarter had been very back-and-forth, which was good for Los Angels considering CP3’s foul trouble. In the second quarter, the Clippers kept executing and were able to stretch the lead out to 58-50 at the half. Then Clippers opened the second half on an 8-0 run that extended to 13-2 when Tyrone Lue called a time out and should have asked his team if they were tired and just wanted to go home, because they were playing like it.
By the time that run was over the Clippers were up by 19 and the game was never in doubt after it.