SACRAMENTO Moments after Caron Butler stepped in front of Sacramento guard Marcus Thornton, drawing a charge late in the third quarter, Blake Griffin committed a similar act of bravery. He planted himself in front of the Kings' driving, 270-pound center DeMarcus Cousins, earning another favorable whistle for the Clippers.
Those moments were surrounded by others, like Mo Williams reaching in and raking the ball out of Thornton's hands, sending it out of bounds and Thornton to the floor. Or Kenyon Martin, after blocking a shot into his own bench, swatting another against the backboard that was called goaltending, but also delivered a message.
These were not the types of eye candy upon which Lob City was built, but they were examples of the dirty little details that will ultimately define whether the Clippers emerge from a meat grinder of a March schedule as legitimate NBA championship contenders.
The Clippers began the month by pulling away from the Kings for a 108-100 victory. That may not exactly be a signature achievement. But it was the way they accomplished it Thursday that left them feeling buoyant about something other than winning for the second time in five games.
The Clippers got a boost from their bench, especially newcomer Bobby Simmons, whose 13 points and solid defense should signal that he'll be with the team beyond the length of his 10-day contract, and Mo Williams and Caron Butler rediscovered their shooting stroke.
But what sparked a second-half surge was the toughness and determination that has been absent at times when the Clippers have squandered leads down the stretch, as they did in the fourth quarter Tuesday night against Minnesota.
If that was not the way to return from the All-Star break, this was not a bad way to begin a six-game road trip and a month in which they will play 20 games.
"All the little things win games," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. "People talk about the spectacular plays, but getting loose balls, taking charges, not turning it over, making free throws, making the easy passes, executing on fast breaks all the little things that add up to big things is what usually wins in the long run."
It was a point that Del Negro made in pointed, colorful language at halftime, frustrated by his team's laissez-faire defense that included watching Jimmer Fredette sink a pair of looooooong 3-pointers that raised the roof and forced the Clippers to rally from an eight-point deficit to forge a 57-57 deadlock at the break.
"I love his passion," DeAndre Jordan said with a smile. "It was constructive criticism."
If Del Negro was on edge, he was not the only one. It was a contentious game with the teams bickering with the referees as much as they did with each other. Paul received a technical foul for firing a dead ball at referee Ed Rush, Kenyon Martin picked up another for a confrontation with Francisco Garcia, and Cousins was given one for barking at Randy Foye after Jordan had swatted his jumper out of bounds.
"Games get a lot more physical, a lot more chippy in the playoffs, so it's good to have that kind of mentality going into it," Griffin said. "It's important to be tough."
The young Kings, with Cousins contributing 23 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, were causing the Clippers problems until the game turned into a grind. Then they became unglued in the fourth quarter.
"No matter if you're not getting fouls or if you are, you've got to play," Kings rookie point guard Isaiah Thomas said. "We didn't do a good job of that. We kept kind of whining to the refs."
As soon as Fredette, who had 10 points in the first half, checked in trying to spark one last run from Sacramento, the Clippers pressured him hard. Williams knocked the ball off Fredette's leg and out of bounds, and Paul, who had 22 points and nine assists, swiped it on the next possession. Both ended in 3-pointers by Williams, boosting the Clippers' lead to 14 with 7:04 left. The Kings never threatened after that.
The shots by Williams, who hit 7 of 14 shots for 18 points, were also encouraging since he had shot just 32 percent in his previous 11 games, dating back to the win at Orlando when Chauncey Billups was hurt. Butler, who had shot just 29 percent in his last five games, also had a one-night resurgence with 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
"It's the same ball, same rim size, same minutes," Del Negro said before the game, dismissing the suggestion that the pair were not getting the same shots they had earlier in the season. "It's a long season. We need those guys to make shots and score for us and be solid contributors like they've done all year, but you're not always going to shoot the ball well. You've got to have an impact on the game in other areas."
They did just that on Thursday, and much to the Clippers' delight, they were not the only ones.