Remember when the Clippers were an automatic win on your team's schedule?
Well, those days may be soon be all but forgotten.
Just ask the Madison Square Garden patrons that were reduced to a hushed whisper in the critical minutes of the Clippers' 102-88 victory over the Empire State Knicks.
In a battle of two first place teams, it was the Clippers (36-17), not the Knicks (32-17), that made all the critical plays down the stretch to pull out the victory.
After being humbled 111-89 on Friday in Miami, Los Angeles needed a statement game Sunday to regain their confidence and bolster their newfound perception as a upper echelon club.
In his second game back after missing significant time with an injury, Chis Paul again looked like the game's best point guard. Paul orchestrated the offense, while scoring 25 points, including five big points in the fourth quarter.
Steady veteran Jamal Crawford epitomized the Clippers' underrated depth by leading the team with 27 points.
Center Blake Griffin was the stabilizer the paint, dropping 17 points and pulling down 12 rebounds.
Leadership may be the underlying strength of this team, and that leadership was on full display in front of national audience on Sunday afternoon. Chauncey Billups—an NBA Finals MVP himself once upon a time—can now be a presence, instead of offering insight from the bench injured, as he has for much of the duration of his time thus far in Los Angeles.
But the biggest examples of leadership on Saturday were Lamar Odom and Grant Hill.
After beginning his career with the Clippers, Odom is back where it all began. After stints in Dallas and Miami and, of course, winning two rings as a key contributor for Phil Jackson's last two Laker NBA championships, Odom's NBA career has been a tale with more twists than the newest episode of The Walking Dead, and many thought Odom was indeed a dead man walking after his putrid play last season in Dallas.
But perhaps burial of the gritty veteran was a bit premature.
His unselfishness was an underrated asset in Jackson's triangle offense, and Odom's pass-first mentality led to five assists in Sunday's win. Two of those assists came on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter, as the Clippers began to pull away from the fading Knicks. Odom also pulled down seven boards in 22 minutes of work, as Los Angeles outrebounded New York 43-35.
Remember Grant Hill?
He was the guy that helped Duke win back-to-back national championships back when Bush 41 was in office. He's still getting it done in 2013 at the age of 40, playing the last 15-plus minutes of Sunday's win.
While he didn't fill up the stat sheet, Hill's blanket coverage of Carmello Anthony was an essential part of LA's 31-18 fourth quarter scoring edge. After torching the Clippers for 38 points in the first three quarters, Hill's sterling defense held Melo to only four points in the final stanza. Hill's effort drew the praise of Paul, who said that Hill deserved the game ball following the victory.
The Western Conference has other formidable teams that will stand in Los Angeles' way of earning the franchise's first trip the The Finals.
The Spurs are running away with the NBA's best record, and Oklahoma City looks even stronger this season, despite the loss of James Harden.
But on Sunday, the Clippers passed a pivotal test as the second half of the season gears up, showing resolve and determination against a good team.
The Clippers had a look in their eyes that screamed: This team won't go down without a fight.
Every team has a moment when they evolve from a good team to a legitimate title contender. Time will be the ultimate judge, but Sunday's win over the Knicks might have been the Clippers moment.
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