The Los Angeles Clippers had visions of catching and passing their intra-city rivals the Lakers in the Pacific Division. Those plans took a major hit Wednesday night when the Lakers won the last meeting of the season between the two teams, giving the Lakers a two-game lead in the loss column and the season series as well. But the Clippers are still in fourth place in the Western Conference, in line for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and if they want to stay there, they need to make sure that the loss in the Battle of L.A. doesn't spill over into the rest of their season.
They didn't have to wait long for their chance to move on, visiting the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night. And although it was far from a work of art, the Clippers got the all-important win, 93-85. It was the Clippers' 33rd win of the season, in their 55th game, which is significant for two reasons. With 11 games remaining, the Clippers have already assured themselves of a non-losing season, only their fourth in 28 years in Los Angeles. Moreover, the 33 wins surpasses their win total from all of last season, when they won 32 games in a full 82-game schedule.
The Kings didn't make things easy on the Clippers. L.A. jumped out to a 14 point lead midway through the second quarter, but Sacramento closed the half strong to close the gap back down to six points. The same pattern emerged in the third quarter -- the Clippers built a double digit lead, the Kings reeled them back in just before the quarter break.
The Clippers started the fourth quarter ice cold against Sacramento's zone (note to future Clippers opponents, they pretty much have no idea what they're doing against a zone) and the Kings went on a 10-2 run to take the lead. The Kings got up by as many as three, but the Clippers battled back.
Blake Griffin has not been a great closer in his brief NBA career. Post scorers tend to feature less in the fourth quarter in general, and Griffin's poor free throw shooting also makes him less than ideal as an option with the game on the line. But in this one, Griffin made three straight buckets to turn a three-point deficit into a three-point advantage -- and two of the makes came on long jump shots. The Clippers didn't relinquish the lead again and made their free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
For the second time in three games the Clippers were led in scoring by Randy Foye with 20, and Griffin finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds. Three other Clippers joined Griffin and Foye in double figures: Chris Paul (13 points, 8 assists and 5 steals), Caron Butler (14) and reserve Eric Bledsoe (13).
The Kings were led by Isaiah Thomas with 17, and got a big game from Jason Thompson with 15 points and 16 rebounds. Tyreke Evans pitched in with 14. DeMarcus Cousins, coming off a career-high 41-point game and on a tear in recent weeks, spent the entire game in foul trouble and was limited to eight points in 18 minutes before fouling out.
With the win, the Clippers move two full games ahead of the Grizzlies and the Mavericks for fourth place in the West (though they're only one game ahead of Memphis in the loss column). They also even up their road record at 13-13. The Kings drop to 19-36 overall and 14-14 at home. Sacramento has been in most of their games in the last month -- but they don't yet know how to win them down the stretch.