The nonsensical hot take that the Clippers are better off without Blake Griffin is growing louder. The All-Star power forward, who was playing at an all-NBA level before being lost to a torn quad tendon following a Christmas night win against the Lakers, has now watched his team win eight consecutive games without him.
For the record, they’re winning in spite of his absence, not because of it. Griffin is averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. The Clips run a lot of offense through him, which helps take pressure off Chris Paul, making the game easier since they flourish playing the two-man game.
While it’s great the Clippers have responsibly stepped up with Griffin gone, they haven’t beaten a single team with a winning record on the nine-game winning streak they take into Wednesday’s home date against Miami. The Heat have been nursing their own injuries over the past week, but represent the best team L.A. has seen since a 100-99 loss to Oklahoma City on Dec. 21.
Take a look at the Clippers’ victims. The 76ers are on the list, 130-99 losers at home. L.A. has beaten the Pelicans twice, only running into Anthony Davis once. Injury-plagued Charlotte, which enters the week with seven straight setbacks, has also lost a pair. The Jazz were without Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert in their loss. Slumping Portland had Damian Lillard back, but he shot 7-for-25.
This isn’t to disparage L.A.’s role in its success, but to point out they haven’t exactly faced murderer’s row. Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have gotten the bulk of the frontcourt minutes in Griffin’s absence, which served to reduce expectations enough that the last seven of L.A.’s wins before Sunday’s OT win over New Orleans also managed to cover the spread.
Six of the wins came on the road, which is impressive regardless of the competition, but don’t listen to the noise that Griffin’s contributions somehow hold them back.
Odds are good he’ll be back by the time the Clippers go back to living out of suitcases for a five-game East trek that begins in Cleveland on Jan. 21, so this stint of Staples Center games against Miami, Sacramento and rival Houston should be particularly challenging. All three teams will be underdogs at Staples, but have been playing at a significantly higher level than the opponents L.A. has defeated of late.
Spurs, Cavs on collision course: The teams that enter the week with the second-longest winning streaks in the NBA just happen to be my projected Finals participants, San Antonio and Cleveland. Both carry seven-game surges into action and have a few hurdles to clear before squaring off in a nationally-televised Thursday night showcase.
Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job building around Kawhi Leonard while getting LaMarcus Aldridge settled in, accomplishing this without over-working any of the veterans. The Spurs have lost two games out of 20 since December began. Their largest loss of the season came by six points on opening night. Overshadowed by Golden State’s incredible start, San Antonio’s dominance has flown under the radar.
Cleveland has lost only once in games that Kyrie Irving has appeared in since his return from a kneecap fracture suffered in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals. Although he’s still working his way back into a rhythm, his mere presence has made LeBron James and Kevin Love more efficient. Tristan Thompson, who will be vital against Aldridge and Tim Duncan, has been impressive defensively and on the boards.
Over the past four wins, J.R. Smith, who is going to be the beneficiary of open looks due to the attention everyone else gets, has shot 22-for-42 from 3-point range, averaging 22.5 points per game. He’s got the green light and the Cavs offense is flourishing.
These teams will meet again in Cleveland on Jan. 30, but you can expect this one to be played with a playoff intensity. The Spurs are perfect, 22-0 at home this season, which makes this a tremendous opportunity for both teams to send a message to an opponent they’ll be expecting to see come June.
Raptors-Magic goes international: Both Orlando and Toronto will play only one game this week, but they’ll be on the clock as ambassadors for the NBA in London before playing at O2 Arena on Thursday.
For Europeans like Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja as well as Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, it’s an opportunity to play a game on their home continent, but it’s always worth monitoring to see how the teams are handling their roles off the floor in a Global Games setting.
The Raptors have been over to London before, back in 2011, marking the first-time a regular-season game was played in Europe, while a young Orlando team actually has a lot of experience in other countries, playing in Rio de Janeiro this preseason and exhibitions in China and Mexico over the past decade.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].