What Happens in Vegas, and China, Makes a Team

The glimmer of flashbulbs and hope that began in Mandalay Bay Arena just off the famed Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard is both distant and easily remembered.

Everything was new.

The Clippers in Vegas for the first time, the opening of the preseason and a roster loaded with reinforcements. After a trip to the second round of the playoffs in 2012, the Clippers, entering year two of the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era, brought in Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Ryan Hollins, Willie Green and Ronny Turiaf.

Expectations in Los Angeles were never grander. And Las Vegas, along with an entertaining two-point loss in the preseason opener, was only the beginning.

China was next. The new Clippers got familiar with each other rapidly in a setting more than 6,000 miles from home. The chemistry that became stuff of fable in December was born in the world’s most populous nation.

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The group did everything together on the trip, including match up with the defending NBA champion Miami Heat twice. They spent four days in Beijing, the site of the 2012 China Games’ opener and massive, overwhelming Chinese capital. They saw Shanghai, a place Odom later referred to as “New York on steroids.”

They visited the Great Wall, which served as the site of their team photograph and with the sun fading in the evening sky served as a wondrous backdrop to history in the making for a team that was merely two weeks into training camp.

The 2012-13 Clippers at their core were pieces of Vegas and pieces of China.

The flash, the show-stopping highlights and the swagger embodied the lights of the Strip, where anything can happen as long as you keep your eyes open long enough. It melded somewhat seamlessly with the China part of the Clippers, the knowledge of veterans like Hill, Odom and Chauncey Billups, the old-world game of Paul and the experience from a year earlier when a sage San Antonio Spurs team knocked them out of the playoffs in four-straight games.

No prognostication at the time, mid-October, the infancy of the NBA season, could have foretold how things would go so right and, at times, so wrong for the Clippers. But standing on the Great Wall, the breeze and fading sunlight, should have been telling. It may not have ended the way anyone expected, including one person on the trip who suggested much later that he believed the team’s season may start and end with the Heat, but by any account was the most historic season in franchise history. 

-They won the Pacific Division for the first time.

-They totaled 56 wins, snapping the previous franchise record of 49 established in 1974-75 when the team was in Buffalo and the NBA consisted of 18 teams.

-They won 17 games in a row, the seventh longest streak in the league since the ABA-NBA merger, completed just the third 16-0 month in history, and established franchise records for consecutive home wins (13), consecutive road wins (seven) and consecutive wins against the Eastern Conference (10).

-Paul and Griffin were All-Stars, Paul the game’s Most Valuable Player (a franchise first) and both were at one-time named Western Conference Player of the Week. Paul was Player of the Month, too, in December, the same time Head Coach Vinny Del Negro won the conference’s Coach of the Month award.

-Crawford set a free throw record, a bench scoring record and became the organization’s single-season leader 3-point shooting, passing Rasual Butler.

-DeAndre Jordan led the league in field goal percentage and surpassed James Donaldson for the franchise record by shooting 64.3%.

-Caron Butler made more 3-pointers in a game (nine) and more 3-pointers in a quarter (six) than any Clippers player ever.

-They swept seven teams, including the Lakers, Bulls and Jazz, and won twice in a season against the Spurs for the first time since 1996-97.

There were enough milestones and achievements to rewrite the team’s record books, and plenty not on the above list. And that all started in Vegas and China, where the team took on parts of both locales to become one of the league’s premier teams in the regular season.

Coming soon: Part 2 of the season recap series, looking at the winning streak and Jan. 19, 2013, when the Clippers held the NBA’s best record at the season’s halfway point for the first time ever.