No one's rushing to anoint the Los Angeles Clippers, who at 22-6 own the NBA's best record. They're not exactly impressed with themselves, either -- despite a franchise-record 14-game winning streak.
"It is still early in the season and we have a lot to prove to the rest of the league," Matt Barnes said after he helped the Clippers' 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.
"They're playing extremely well," 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. "They're coming at you in waves and waves."
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 league's elite teams such as the Lakers, defending champion Miami, Memphis, and San Antonio twice.
"This is fool's gold," cautioned Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who led the starters with 14 points against the Nuggets. "You don't play for the regular season. Obviously, you want to build something."
While the Clippers continue to soar, the Lakers are starting to show signs of life in what has been a confounding season.
"We're .500," a smiling Dwight Howard said after the Lakers improved to 14-14. "We did it on Christmas, too. I knew this day would come."
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 D'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.
"It's so early in the season to have turned a corner," Bryant said. "We have everybody in the lineup and we're starting to see how we want to play."
The Clippers have clearly figured things out.
Jamal Crawford led their reserves with 22 points and Barnes added 20 -- one off his season high -- 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.
"They've got the respect of the league and they've got the attention of the league," said former Clipper Andre Miller, who had 12 points for Denver. "It's tough to come in here and get a win when the team is playing that well."
Kosta Koufos and Jordan Hamilton scored 16 points each and Ty Lawson added 15 points for the Nuggets, who fell to 7-13 on the road, where 22 of their first 32 games are being played.
Crawford's 3-pointer to open the fourth pushed the lead to 20 and kept the Clippers' starters on the bench for the final 12 minutes.
Denver rallied in the third, using a 15-6 spurt to close to 73-63, capped by Andre Iguodala's free throw after Paul received a technical foul.
The Clippers answered with three consecutive 3-pointers, including two by Willie Green from the opposite corners, for an 84-67 lead. The Nuggets ran off seven in a row to get within 10 before the Clippers regrouped with a 9-2 run, capped by Paul's 3-pointer, that kept them ahead 93-76 heading into the fourth.
"They have a confidence right now that's pretty powerful," Nuggets coach George Karl said.
The Clippers stretched their lead to 67-48 at halftime with 42 points in the second, their highest-scoring quarter this season. The bench got things going with a 14-10 run before Paul replaced a wild Eric Bledsoe. His presence settled down the second unit until Griffin and DeAndre Jordan eventually came back in during a 28-10 run the rest of the period that produced the Clippers' first double-digit lead. Driving dunks by Barnes and Griffin, alley-oop dunks by Griffin and Jordan, and consecutive 3-pointers by Barnes and Paul highlighted the scoring binge.
"When we are at our best our starters have a great first quarter and our bench elevates that," Griffin said.
In the opening game at Staples, the Knicks were in control most of the way behind Anthony and J.R. Smith, who had 24 points. But they struggled offensively in the fourth, when Anthony was limited to seven points and Smith had five as the Lakers' defense clamped down. World Peace fouled out with 1:58 to play and the Lakers ahead by four.
Steve Nash said of World Peace: "This is what he's been doing all year. He gets his hands on a lot of balls, pounds on the other team's best guy. You can't win without that type of effort."
Smith's 3-pointer pulled New York to 96-94. After Pau Gasol made one of two free throws, Smith missed another 3 that would have tied the game at 97 with 32 seconds left.
"We missed a lot of easy shots, a lot of little chippers around the basket, shots that we normally make," Anthony said. "There were some plays that we thought should have went our way down the stretch, but for the most part, we fought. I'll take this effort any night. If we continue to play with this effort, we'll win a lot of games."
With Bryant double-teamed, Nash passed to Gasol, who dunked with 12 seconds to go, punctuating a win that sent Lakers fans, frustrated by the team's struggles and coaching change, home happy. The Lakers avenged a 116-107 loss in New York on Dec. 13.