Heisler: Clippers atop the mountain, however long they last

Live from Staples Center, it’s the Next Great Team!

No, of course, it’s not the Lakers. They’re the Last Great Team.

If the next great one is busy being born here, it’s the Clippers, who are already spectacular and aiming for bigger things.

If you want to know what the Clippers could be, it’s no longer a problem because they just turned it all loose, for one night, anyway, routing West-leading Oklahoma City.

After rolling up 38 points in the first quarter, or as much as Coach Scott Brooks is used to seeing his team give up until halftime nears, the Clippers cut off a Thunder rally, cutting their lead from 15 to six, dropping four threes on them in 50 seconds to run their lead back up to 18.

As it turned out, the Clips were just warming up the crowd.

Three minutes into the second half, Blake Griffin jammed over Kendrick Perkins, who was doing his usual Thou-Shalt-Not Pass number, smiting Blake across the chest, only to see him vault over him in what some called The Greatest Dunk Ever, while others pointed out It Wasn’t Even a Dunk If He Barely Touched the Rim.

Meanwhile, traditionalists held out for Dr. J’s cuff dunk off the dribble and old-timers waxed sentimentally about Wilt’s awesome strength.

Highlight fever… well, it’s a long season and you have to pass the time somehow.

Not that the mind plays tricks on you, but you can watch Wilt dunking all over YouTube… or, actually, tucking the ball gently into the basket.

It was another time before dunks meant endorsements, Darryl Dawkins invented the shatter-proof backboard, or made its invention necessary, and Shaquille O’Neal bagged an entire basket standard.

And Wilt was in another place, so intent on being acknowledged for his skill rather than being sneered at as a tall geek, the strongest man who ever played the game placed the sphere in the net like a giant Pterodactyl nestling one of its eggs.

Bottom line, Griffin’s jam/throw touched a lot of people… like everyone who had ever seen a basketball game… so whatever it was, it was big.

OK, we now return to the real world.

If such feats give us thrills to share and remember, they’re just highlights. The moment that lasts forever is the last one of the season when someone is handed a championship trophy. That’s what decides which Celtic center goes down as The Greatest Winner of All Time and which merely awe-inspiring arch-rival is a Tragic Giant.

So, if the Clippers are spectacular and hope to be more, we’ve seen a bunch like them….

Well, none of the other teams had Griffin, so they weren’t exactly like the Clippers, but it’s close enough.

The Hawks have an entire highlight-reel theme park, with young athletes doing all sorts of running and jumping feats in their arena, “the Highlight Factory.”

Unfortunately, along with the last four seasons’ thrills as they took the franchise back into the playoffs came two trips to the second round and none beyond it.

And who can forget the young Clippers of 1999-2003, their first four seasons in Staples with Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Corey Maggette?

Oh, you already have?

I know, nine years later, with E, LO and Corey as grizzled veterans and Darius out of the league, it doesn’t sound as exciting, especially if those teams didn’t win a playoff game, or play in one.

So for this to mean anything, the Clippers are going to actually have to be good.

Not that they have accomplished that yet, but it’s doable.

The night before they put the Thunder to the torch, they won in Denver, beating the West’s No. 2 team as Chris Paul took over, hitting four free throws down the stretch—none of which as much as grazed the iron.

A year ago, their young team with Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Gordon provided thrills galore—like Blake Perking Timofey Mozgov, just as he would Mozgov Perkins—and went 32-50 in a rude, welcome-to-the-NBA season.

A year later, watching the win over Denver, where Coach Vinny Del Negro yo-yoed Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who are shaky at the free throw line, the question is why anyone was surprised that last season’s team, which didn’t have CP3 or Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups, lost all those close.

This team has world-class closers, guys who can draw defenses (CP3, Griffin) and guys to kick it to who can shoot (Billups, Caron Butler, perfect-in-this-role Mo Williams).

The Clippers can even defend… well enough… some nights.

That excludes their first four games in which they were out-rebounded by 40, while giving up 115 points in San Antonio and 114 to the Bulls in Staples, making it a feat to have gone 2-2.

Aside from the fact they’re small, with only Solomon Jones to back up their big men, Jordan and Griffin, who are no monsters, themselves, at 6-9 3/4 and 6-8 1/2 in bare feet, respectively, everyone was so eager to get out on the break, Del Negro had to remind them to make sure they got the ball off their defensive boards more often than their opponents.

Since then, they’ve allowed 95 points a game, while out-rebounding opponents by 1.4 a game.

What’s not possible now?

Hey, these are the Clippers, where anything is possible, from the sky above (new alternative) to the mud below (traditional destination).

Scott Brooks, who knows what’s required of young comers, called the Clippers “the best team we’ve played this season.”

Not that you get a trophy for how you look 20 games into it, but this so-recently woebegone franchise, which must perform to keep Paul when he’s free in 2013 and Griffin when he’s free in 2014, has to start somewhere.

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His columns and power rankings appear here each Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter. 


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