Elite status in the NBA is difficult to achieve, and the Detroit Pistons have been among the game's best for a while.
The Clippers strive to join the club and say they're moving closer toward the door, but it appeared they still weren't ready to enter Sunday night after a 109-101 loss to the Pistons at Staples Center.
Detroit (15-2) committed only four turnovers, the fewest in the NBA this season, never trailed and led by as many as 16 points early in the third quarter. And Piston reserves outscored their Clipper counterparts, 29-16, in the team's sixth consecutive victory, including five on the road.
"This is the best team I have ever coached [from] the standpoint of everything they can do," said first-year Detroit Coach Flip Saunders, who previously coached the Minnesota Timberwolves for 10 seasons.
"It is a multidimensional team. They can lock you down defensively, we have the ability to beat people with our offense and I thought our bench was superb tonight."
The Pistons' NBA-best winning percentage increased to .882. Detroit opened a four-game lead over the second-place Indiana Pacers in the Central Division.
The Clippers (14-6) lost the final game on a 4-1 homestand and maintained a half a game lead over the Phoenix Suns in the Pacific Division.
The Clippers said they expected a stern test against arguably the league's most talented and deep team, especially playing their second game on consecutive nights, and the Pistons didn't surprise them.
"We knew it would be a tough one," said Clipper forward Elton Brand, who had 36 points and 10 rebounds, his 14th double-double.
"Detroit is a great team, best record in the league, and we were coming off back-to-back games. But we did a lot of things to hurt ourselves."
The Clippers especially struggled in rebounding missed free throws, which was the centerpiece of Coach Mike Dunleavy's late-game strategy.
With about six minutes remaining and the Clippers trailing, 92-84, Dunleavy instructed center Chris Kaman to intentionally foul Piston center Ben Wallace, stopping the clock and putting a poor free-throw shooter on the line.
Dunleavy figured Wallace, whose career average is only 42.4%, would miss more than he made (he did) and that the Clippers would rebound (they didn't).
The Pistons repeatedly got offensive rebounds, increasing the pressure on the Clippers, and the biggest blow occurred with 4:51 remaining in the game.
Wallace missed two free throws, grabbed his second missed shot and passed to point guard Chauncey Billups, whose three-pointer extended the lead to 97-86. Billups led four Pistons in double figures with 25 points and guard Richard Hamilton had 23.
Wallace missed 15 of 22 free-throw attempts and the Pistons made only 25 of 45 from the line (55.6%). The Clippers were 15 for 16 from the line.
"We got the results that we wanted from fouling Wallace and putting him on the free-throw line, but we just didn't claim the rebounds," Dunleavy said. "There are two parts to that.
"You have to foul the right guy and get him to miss shots, but you've got to go get the boards. We didn't do the job we needed to in that area."
The absence of 7-foot center Zeljko Rebraca, sidelined after a noninvasive procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat, may have hurt the Clippers against the Pistons, who have formidable front-court starters and reserves.
"You always want to win the game, obviously, especially when you're at home, but a team like that puts so much pressure on you," said Kaman, who had 16 points and nine rebounds.
"We were stuck behind the whole game. It's not like we're happy we lost, but they're the No. 1 team in the NBA right now."
And they didn't make many mistakes.
"A key to going on the road and being able to win is not turning the ball over," Saunders said. "When we execute our offense, we are normally pretty good, so low turnovers do not surprise me."