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Wednesday, March 08, 2006 


If the Clippers played every night like they played tonight, they'd be one of the elite teams in the league. With everyone committed to Coach Dunleavy's defense-driven gameplan, they delivered 48 minutes of first-rate basketball against the NBA world champions, outlasting and ultimately outclassing the San Antonio Spurs, 98-85. Their performance had Staples Center rocking and Clip fans once again daring to dream big.

For me and my sister Piera (the hottie next to me on the clippers.com Super Fan page), the evening started with a visit to one of our favorite restaurants: r-23 on the railroad tracks between 2nd and 3rd Streets (hence the name). Over a bottle of Asahi, we split some edamame, a Dungeness crab salad, lobster tempura, and yellowtail carpaccio with assorted caviars. Then it was on to sushi: albacore, yellowtail belly, fresh water eel, and spicy tuna roll with gobo. Mochi for me, red bean ice cream for her, and we were off to Staples. Picked up my Clippers fleece blanket (part of the MVP Rewards program), noted happily that the Kings had defeated the Minnesota Wild 3-2, and prepared for the Clips' toughest challenge to date.

Let's face it: by responding to their nationally televised two-point loss in Utah with a woeful effort against Memphis, the Clippers sent out warning signs. They looked by turns uninterested, out of sync, and overly confident of a place in the playoffs. To take advantage of the Spurs' second game in two nights, the Clips would have to, in Bill Clinton's words, "focus like a laser beam" on the team's goals and their individual roles.

They did exactly that. Elton Brand outsmarted and outdueled Tim Duncan to win the battle of the MVP candidates. First, EB got Timmah in foul trouble with three midway through Q2 and a fourth midway through Q3. Then he exploited the void, striking for 30 and 9 with five assists and three blocks as the Jumbotron played video from one of his recent "Read to Achieve" events for schoolchildren. The man is a winner on and off the court and, even surrounded by other good guys, especially easy to cheer for.

But EB is EB every night. The unsung hero of the night (and, in my mind, the season) is Quinton Ross. Finally feeling good after his bout with back spasms, Q Ross made the most of his medically alloted 25 minutes oncourt. He shut down Tony Parker in the first half in a way nobody else in the league has. Parker -- whose girlfriend, Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, saw both ends of the Spurs' back-to-back (Laker fans booed her; Clip fans didn't) -- finished with twenty points but worked for them like the dickens and got most of them when Q Ross sat down. Meanwhile, Q hit all four of his shots, including the late dagger that had Gregg Popovich emptying his bench.

Sam Cassell -- you remember him? The guy who went 1-7 against Memphis? Well, after dislocating his left pinky finger, he popped it back into place and popped in a fifteen-point, eleven-assist double-double, including six straight baskets during the Clips' decisive 24-8 run that turned a 53-52 Q3 deficit into a 76-61 Q4 lead. We can only hope our spiritual leader has returned from his pilgrimage ready to lead us to the promised land.

Chris Kaman dominated at center, finishing two boards shy of a double-double with fifteen and eight. The Big Silly hit four of six field goals and an amazing seven of eight free throws. Cuttino Mobley rounded out the starting five with eleven points on 50% shooting. And Vladimir Radmanovic hit three of four from downtown, each seemingly bigger than the last. Vlad Rad has really stretched opposing defenses for the Clips while playing decent D himself; if he starts creating off the dribble, watch out, he could be a keeper.

Besides Vlad the Impaler, only Shaun Livingston and Corey Maggette got off the pine as Coach Dunleavy necessarily shortened his bench. Maggs started perfectly by driving hard to the hole for two FTs on his first possession, but got away from that style of play. Later, when the Spurs mounted their final charge, he rebounded his own miss and, one second into a fresh clock, jacked up the same shot. Forget his basketball IQ -- Maggs must understand his role on the newly reconstituted Clippers, which is primarily that of a slasher. Once Coach has a healthy roster, a rushed or contested jumper -- unless it is the only option -- should send Corey to the corner with a conical cap.

But tonight we accentuate the positive. The Clips proved to everybody that they can compete with anybody. Once Zeljko Rebraca comes back and the coaching staff fine-tunes the rotation, the team has the potential to become a twelve-headed monster, legitimately two or three deep at every position. Or, as Pamela Anderson would call it, stacked!

Still, there remains the nagging question: How can a team look so good against the Spurs one night and so bad against vastly inferior teams other nights? As with Goran Ivanisevic, fans never know which team they'll get: the good Clippers, the bad Clippers, or the 911 Emergency Clippers. That inconsistency is what separates the Clips from the Spurs, Mavericks, and Suns of the world and keeps them down with objectively less talented teams such as the Hornets and Lakers.

The team gets its first chance to build on this big win Friday night at Chicago. I continue to point to Feb. 12, when the Clips blew a nine-point lead in a 97-91 home loss to Chicago, as the night the dream of a division title died. The Clips unraveled after that, dropping seven of ten entering tonight. They must bring into Chicago the same attitude Cat Mobley voiced entering Boston: they beat us at home, so we're coming "full throttle" into their house looking for revenge. Ten wins over .500 doesn't seem like too much to ask of the team that dominated the defending champs tonight.

Click on Clipper Talk and join the discussion. -- Jordan

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