For a while there, this game reminded me of what this team was like last season. As if awaking from a dream, I watched the Clippers play good basketball against a quality opponent (on the road, no less) for the first time this season (or at least since the game against Dallas in November).
Despite an absolutely horrendous start to the game and to the second half, the Clippers overcame a Houston lead that was 17 at one point. They did it with defense in the fourth quarter - after having given up 87 points through three. The Rockets missed 10 of their first 12 shots in the quarter, and the two makes both came after offensive rebounds. In the first 8:25 of the fourth, the Clippers outscored them 23-9 to take a three point lead at 99-96, their first lead of the game. But as is often the case, it seemed that they had expended so much energy during the comeback, they simply didn't have enough left for the closeout.
The Clippers still led the game by one, with the ball, with 37 seconds left. Alas, it was not to be. In the final minute of a game, it's simply better to have a Tracy McGrady than an Elton Brand. After Elton missed a jump shot, McGrady penetrated and passed off to Luther Head for the go-ahead three. Down two with plenty of time, Elton's pass for Corey Maggette was deflected by Yao (he is very tall), and that was the ball game. Don't get me wrong - I'm not down on Elton. He had a monster game. He led the Clippers comeback with a season-high 37. It's just so much harder to go through a power forward when you need one bucket than it is to go through a wing.
In the final 3:25, McGrady made two tough jumpers in addition to the assist on the game-winner.
Still, following up a solid effort in San Antonio on Tuesday with this game has got to feel pretty good to the Clippers, despite the loss. You would think that at this time of year, getting the win would be all that matters. But the way the Clippers have played this season against good teams, these two games could really give them a boost of confidence. The re-appearance of Elton Brand, stud, after a couple weeks missing is especially encouraging.
Of course it won't matter at all if they don't go to Charlotte and beat the Bobcats. But there are three games on this trip against sub-.500 teams beginning Friday, and a fourth against a Bulls team that the Clippers beat in January. If they play as well in the next four games as they have in these two, they can salvage a decent trip.
And the other teams keep on losing. The Kings lost to those same Bobcats Wednesday night to remain a game behind the Clippers. But Golden State is now the team to worry about, and they have taken a .002 percentage point lead over the Clippers in the standings by virtue of sitting on their butts the last two days while everyone else was losing. The race for the 8th spot is ludicrously close (and simply ludicrous for that matter). The Warriors are currently in 8th place and they have 36 losses. The Clippers and Wolves actually have FEWER losses (35) and the Kings and Hornets have the same number. All 5 teams are within a game of each other in the standings.
Whichever team can catch fire (or possibly just run a slight temperature) can make the playoffs.
If the Clippers who went to Texas continue to show up at other arenas around the NBA, it ought to be them.