SALT LAKE CITY — On Sunday, the Utah Jazz play the team with the best record in the NBA on the road.
Put in that context, Friday night's game might seem to offer a bit of a reprieve in the schedule before this lottery-bound squad visits league-leading San Antonio this weekend.
For starters, this game is at home for the Jazz.
It’s also against the Los Angeles Clippers, who have lost 61 times in their 81 visits to the Beehive State. Before losing their last three games at EnergySolutions Arena to the Clippers, the Jazz had defeated the L.A. squad an incredible 47 of 48 times in regular season and playoff meetings.
Still not feeling overly confident that Utah, now 22-43 and having lost seven of eight, will pick up its first win at EnergySolutions Arena since returning from its grueling, six-game road trip?
There’s a good reason for that.
These aren’t your Michael Olowokandi Clippers.
These are, however, your Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Jamaal Crawford Clippers who bring an NBA-high nine-game winning streak to Utah with them.
“They’re playing well at the right time of the year, finishing out here,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said of the Clippers, who have been averaging 115 points per game during their winning streak. “They’re feeling really good about how they’re playing. It looks like they’ve got all the pieces if they stay healthy.”
Not only do the red-hot Clippers boast all of the aforementioned standouts, but L.A., perhaps the NBA’s deepest team, also has Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, and newly acquired Danny Granger and Glen Davis.
Not to mention the fact that the Clippers are guided by an elite coach, Doc Rivers.
“They have a lot of weapons,” Jazz point guard Trey Burke said.
The proof is on the scoreboard.
The surging Clippers are the highest-scoring team in the NBA with an average of 107.9 points per game. But they’re also in the upper half in scoring defense (14th, 100.7 ppg).
Nobody has a better point differential than they do at plus-7.2, either.
This superior Los Angeles team (46-20) is closing in on the No. 2 spot in the West currently held by Oklahoma City (47-17) and is only three games behind the 48-16 Spurs, who have won eight straight.
“Right now with the way they’re playing, as hot as they’ve been since the new year they’re right in there,” Corbin said.
One thing that’s helped as much as anything else: Griffin’s improved mid-range shooting.
“His game’s expanded,” Corbin said. “His team’s having success as a result of his improvement.”
The fact that Griffin is no longer just a Lob City threat puts extra pressure on opposing defenses. Corbin explained that bigs are reluctant to come out too far on him because he’s quick enough to blow by them. But leave him alone from 15-18 feet out, and he’ll sink a jumper on you now.
“The more he makes his perimeter shots,” Corbin added, “the more dangerous he is out there.”
Hall of Fame power forward Karl Malone has had a special spot in his heart for Griffin since his son participated in football camps in Oklahoma while the athletic 6-10 big man played for the Sooners from 2007-09.
“Right off the bat, I knew who Blake was,” Malone said. “I always watched Blake coming out of there. I just loved watching him play and how hard he played and how physical he played.”
Malone was asked during All-Star weekend if he saw similarities between his game and the current power dunker, who, by the way, recently did a Mailman-esque dunk as a tribute.
“I never jumped like that. I jumped when I had to. The physical play, I like that,” Malone said. “I just like his demeanor. I would like to see him get mad one time. Me, it didn’t take too much to get me riled up. Blake is one of those guys, he just plays the game no matter what. He can play for a long time.”
Malone is impressed with the evolution of Griffin’s game, too. He’s added some finesse to his power repertoire. The former Jazz star wants to see the Clippers superstar face the basket more often, though, like he did, especially later in his career.
“When you turn and face your opponent they’re scared to death,” Malone said. “I would never pay to see anybody play, but I will go see him.”
My how things change, right? The Clippers a legitimate challenger?
An NBA legend wanting to watch a non-Laker L.A. player do his thing?
These certainly aren’t your cellar-dweller Clippers any more.
“You can’t get caught up in people’s history. That’s more media-driven. That’s fan-based,” Jazz forward Richard Jefferson said, explaining that he faced a similar stigma when he helped New Jersey go from being the worst to an NBA Finals squad.
“Players don’t pay attention to that. When they drafted me in Jersey, they were like, ‘Well the Nets haven’t done this.’ I was like, ‘Well, I wasn’t on the Nets so I can’t speak on that history.”
The way the Clippers are playing now, they appear like they’re on the verge of creating a new winning chapter for the history books. Not like L.A. has to do much to improve on its past, considering the Clips have only been to the playoffs six times in the past three decades and out of the first round just twice since 2006.
“I think Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, the guys that they brought in, even Chris Paul, he didn’t give a (darn) what the Clippers' history was,” Jefferson said. “He didn’t care if it was the Lakers’ town. Players don’t really care about that stuff. They care about defining their own path, and I think that’s what people need to focus on.”
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