If you rank the Clippers' 82-game schedule in ascending level of difficulty, you'd find Monday's home date against the 3-37 New Jersey Nets at the top of that list. For a Clippers squad reeling from a four-game losing streak, that "NJ" pixel block on the magnet schedule was a welcome sight, even if they were loath to admit it.
"It's a very dangerous game," Clippers forward Craig Smith said. "Those are the teams that play the hardest and try to do the little things because they're so desperate for the win. You can't play to their level of expectation. You have to play to yours."
The Clippers' expectations rose exponentially before tipoff when center Chris Kaman, who had missed the previous four games to a sore back, decided he'd take the floor.
"I was tired of sitting out," Kaman said. "I worked with our muscle guy earlier today and [my back] felt really good after I got done there."
Kaman responded with 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting from the field, seven rebounds and three blocked shots, pacing the Clippers to a 106-95 win over New Jersey.
With Kaman back at his familiar spot on the block, the Clippers resembled the team that put together a winning streak at the beginning of the month.
"It puts everyone back into their role," Clippers point guard Baron Davis said of Kaman's return. "[Chris] is an important weapon for our offense. It's good to have him out there because we can always throw the ball down low and get a bucket."
Kaman was a bit tentative at the outset of the game, opting for jumpers from 15 feet rather than grinding down on the block.
"[Jump shots] are easier than getting smashed in the back when you're going to the post," Kaman said. "To start out I wanted to see how it felt. I had to get it warmed up first."
Kaman loosened up after draining three of his six attempted jumpers in the first quarter. After that, Kaman expanded his game. When the Nets cut a big Clippers' lead to single-digits in the opening minutes of the third quarter, the ball went into Kaman repeatedly in the post. The Clippers quickly rebuilt their lead, as Kaman converted all three of his field goal attempts in the opening minutes of the half, and helped out on several scores with smart kick-outs.
"[The Nets] double-teamed the whole night, so I tried to do a good job passing the ball out," Kaman said.
Even with Kaman's return, Smith continued to produce in his role as the Clippers' backup power forward. He finished with 18 points in 18 minutes, hitting eight of his 10 shot attempts from the field. The Nets' frontcourt was defenseless against Smith's peculiar combination of heft and finesse. Smith's game has an almost streetball quality to it. When he has the ball in his hands below the foul line, Smith is irrepressible, able to take almost any big man one-on-one by putting his head down and muscling to the rim.
"I play a lot of pickup in the offseason, but my pickup game is different from my on-the-floor game," Smith said. "I use my handle a little bit more out there and kind of freelance. I'm agile but strong at the same time."
Smith's no dummy: When asked which of his two teammates he'd take with him for a 3-on-3 tournament, he chose the roster's two point guards: Baron Davis and Sebastian Telfair.
Clippers second-year guard Eric Gordon played some point during his one season at Indiana, but has been used almost exclusively at shooting guard since arriving in the NBA. Today, he showed flashes of his old self in matching his career high in assists with seven.
"I'm just trying to be more of a playmaker," Gordon said. "I'm still a combo guard like I was in college."
Veteran center Marcus Camby, who provides a steady diet of good-natured ribbing in the locker room, stood nearby and joked that Gordon's career high in assists couldn't have been more than three.
"That was the running joke today," Camby said.
But swingman Rasual Butler swiftly came to Gordon's defense.
"[Gordon] gave me a nice one in transition," Butler said.
Has order been restored with Kaman's return or was Monday's resounding win merely the product of inferior competition? That will be more clear on Wednesday, when an improving Chicago Bulls team arrives at Staples Center before the Clippers hit the road for their longest trip of the season.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the author of the True Hoop Network's Clipper Blog.