LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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.