No oneâ€™s rushing to anoint the Los Angeles Clippers, who at 22-6 own the NBAâ€™s best record. Theyâ€™re not exactly impressed with themselves, either â€“ despite a franchise-record 14-game winning streak.
â€˜â€™It is still early in the season and we have a lot to prove to the rest of the league,â€™â€™ Matt Barnes said after he helped the Clippersâ€™ reserves outscore their starters in a 112-100 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
No less an authority than Kobe Bryant is complimentary.
â€˜â€™Theyâ€™re playing extremely well,â€™â€™ Bryant said after leading the Lakers to their fifth straight win, 100-94 over the New York Knicks in the first game of a Christmas doubleheader at Staples Center. â€˜â€™Theyâ€™re coming at you in waves and waves.â€™â€™
The Clippers have taken advantage of a soft stretch in their schedule to win a franchise-record 14 in a row, although they have earlier wins over some of the leagueâ€™s elite teams such as the Lakers, defending champion Miami, Memphis, and San Antonio twice.
â€˜â€™This is foolâ€™s gold,â€™â€™ cautioned Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who led the starters with 14 points against the Nuggets. â€˜â€™You donâ€™t play for the regular season. Obviously, you want to build something.â€™â€™
While the Clippers continue to soar, the Lakers are starting to show signs of life in what has been a confounding season.
â€˜â€™Weâ€™re .500,â€™â€™ a smiling Dwight Howard said after the Lakers improved to 14-14. â€˜â€™We did it on Christmas, too. I knew this day would come.â€™â€™
Bryant scored 34 points in his NBA-record 15th Christmas Day game, and Metta World Peace added 20 points and seven rebounds while defending Carmelo Anthony, whose 34 points led the Knicks.
The Lakers moved to 9-9 under new coach Mike Dâ€™Antoni and upped their holiday record to 21-18, including 13-9 at home. They returned to .500 for the first time since they were 8-8 on Nov. 30.
â€˜â€™Itâ€™s so early in the season to have turned a corner,â€™â€™ Bryant said. â€˜â€™We have everybody in the lineup and weâ€™re starting to see how we want to play.â€™â€™
The Clippers have clearly figured things out.
Jamal Crawford led their reserves with 22 points and Barnes added 20 â€“ one off his season high â€“ as the bench outscored the starters 64-48 in moving one win ahead of second-best Oklahoma City (21-6), which lost to Miami earlier Tuesday.
â€˜â€™Theyâ€™ve got the respect of the league and theyâ€™ve got the attention of the league,â€™â€™ said former Clipper Andre Miller, who had 12 points for Denver. â€˜â€™Itâ€™s tough to come in here and get a win when the team is playing that well.â€™â€™