If there is a pattern so far in this disconcerting Clippers campaign; it's that the team has found ways to bounce back after soul crushing losses. In a perverse sense, the players and coaches deserve some credit for not throwing in the towel and pointing fingers at one another (like in Golden State and Washington). After the inexcusable loss to a depleted Indiana squad on Wednesday, you get the sense that the team was flat on the mat once again, and a loss tonight against the tiny-toon version of the Detroit Pistons would mean the psychological death of this Clippers squad. A dejected Dunleavy described Wednesday's loss as "horrible," Ralph called it "devastating," and Smith said it was "unacceptable" for the Clippers to lose both games on this road trip.
So with their back to the wall; the Clippers found a way to win against a clearly depleted Pistons team. But it was a hard fought victory, much closer than it needed to be, despite the fact that the Clippers played relatively well on the offensive end and limited their turnovers. Defensively, the Clippers allowed another unknown NBA scrub to torch them. Well, our sole Swedish Clippers fan can enlighten us on the wonders of Jonas Jerebko. But I, for one, have never heard of the kid who torched us for a career high 22 points on 8-11 shooting.
More than the blown rotations and our weak perimter defense, however, this game was nearly lost on the defensive glass. We gave up 19 offensive rebounds to Detroit, most of them to a hustling Ben Wallace. Maxiell also came up with some big rebounds against our wings. The fatal flaw of this Clippers squad that some of us have been worrying about since the summer are now coming to fruition: the inability of our wing players to get boards. Eric, Sebastian, and Baron are a bit too small to grab crucial rebounds, and both Rasual and Thornton are below average rebounders for their position. Al is doing a better job on the offensive glass, but now he needs to step up on the defensive end for this team to have a chance. Luckily for us, Ben Gordon, Tayshaun, and Rip were all out, so even when they got three offensive boards to extend a possession, they were not able to cash them in consistently. We escaped with a win tonight in spite of ourselves. The plane ride back to LA won't be as morose. But you get the feeling that this team is still standing on a ledge, on the verge of falling.
The first quarter started out well, particularly when Kaman made a very nice reverse left handed layup. When Kaman makes those shots, you get the feeling that Mr Flippy has been banished for the night. Baron continues his strong play from Indiana, and the two man game of Baron and Kaman carried us in the early going. On the bad side of the ledger, Rasual Butler tried to back down his defender on the low post and clanged up an ugly turn around jumper then forced another three pointer early. Al also settled for some early jumpers that were off the mark. Perhaps sensing desperation from Butler and Al, Dunleavy subbed in Eric and Novak at the three minute mark of the first. Eric is clearly rusty, his usual dependable jumpers slightly off. But he's better than Rasual at reading the floor and was able to take the ball hard to the hoop and draw some fouls on Stuckey. Near the end of the 1st quarter, however, Detroit starts to assert themselves on the offensive glass, and after three straight offensive boards, Baron committed a frustration foul. Right before the end of the quarter though, Eric made a great drive to the hoop and after drawing the defenders to him, kicked the ball out to Kaman for an open baseling jumper to tie the ballgame.
The second quarter started out well with a great alley oop from Sebastian to Al. Then Al went back to his strength. He used his athleticism and explosive first step to get to the hoop and get to the free throw line. With Al establishing his slashing game, the Clippers eked out a 39-36 lead. After that, things fell apart. It fell apart when Detroit defenders step back from Al and dared him to shoot a 20 footer. He obliged and missed twice in a row. Detroit goes up 43-39 on the strength of Stuckey, Bynum, and Wallace's hustle. Baron goes one on one and kept us in the ball game. On one sequence, Baron poked the ball away, Eric scrambles for the loose ball and somehow taps the ball to a streaking Baron for a layup. It was good to see Baron smiling and commending Eric on a great play, as you get the sense that Baron isn't overly fond of Eric. In the ensuing posession, he tries to pay back Eric by giving him the ball on a break but Eric lost the ball as he went up. From that point on until half time, Baron looked to pass to Kaman in the low post almost exclusively. This killed our offense rhythm as we became predictable and our offense bogged down: Kaman backs down his defender and turns the ball over on one posession, or kicked it back out to Baron on another, only to have Baron force up a bad three pointer with the clock expiring. Detroit outscored us 27-20 in the second and took a 7 point lead into halftime.
The Clippers open the third quarter strong and came out focused. Maybe it was one of those come to Jesus moment in the locker room or maybe it was because they had some professional pride and couldn't tolerate losing to a team that started Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko. After closing to 56-58, Baron came down with the ball on a crucial posession. He passed the ball to Butler on the wing, and Rasual Butler once again singlemindedly tried to assert his low post game by backing down his defender and forcing up an awkward looking turnaround jumper. It was not close. One thing you can say about Rasual Butler is that he isn't Quentin Ross. He isn't afraid to shoot and he's also not half the defender that Q Ross was. That became clear as Stuckey left him in the dust and Detroit took a 56-62 lead. Baron came down to hit a 3 to pull us back to 59-62. Detroit comes up empty and once again Rasual tried to assert himself as the big shot guy for the team. He missed a spot up 3. On the other end, Stuckey used a good pick by Wallace to pick off both Kaman and Butler for a 59-64 lead. Baron responds on the other end; 61-64. But once again, Stuckey beats Rasual off the edge and drew the foul. At this point, Dunleavy brought in Eric to cover Stuckey and moved Rasual to Austin Daye. Whether by design or accident, Detroit immediately found Daye along the baseline and drew another foul from Butler.
At this point, the game can go either way. Baron and Kaman have played well offensively and Eric and Al have played well in spurts. Despite shooting over 55% to Detroit's 40% the game is close. Ben Wallace's energy has been huge. He out hustles Kaman and our team to every loose ball and Detroit has grabbed 15 offensive rebounds on us by the third. We finished the third quarter on a gift goal tending and foul call on a quick drive by Eric but the officials gave Detroit a makeup call on the other end on a phantom foul by Craig Smith on Chucky Atkins. Detroit finished the quarter holding a 74-75 lead.
The Fox Sports broadcast went down at the end of the third quarter and for most of the game. Perhaps everything in Detroit is falling apart. From the radio, I was able to gather that Al started to establish his slash game once again. He got hot and got himself to the free throw line. This helps his confidence and even when he settles for his mid range jumpers, they go in. Eric drove the lane and drew two free throws on Villanueva, then Al hits an open 15 footer. But the pride of Sweden Jonas Jerebko kept Detroit in the ball game. He matches Al shot for shot. Jerebko scores inside and gets foul. Jerebko steps back and hits a 3 pointer to keep Detroit on top; 86-87. Al answers with a 17 footer to put the Clippers back on top 88-87. Though it would be close the rest of the way, Jerebko was unable to pull Detroit ahead after that. Jerebko would lead Detroit with 22 points. Baron would finish with 25 on 6-9 shooting. Kaman would finish with 26 on an astounding 11-13 shooting, but with only 7 rebounds. After a shaky start, Al finished with 19 points on 8-12 shooting. On this night, perhaps the worst shooters were Eric and Rasual, but Eric was able to get to the free throw line and finished with a respectable 14 points with 4 rebounds and 4 asissts. As a team, the Clippers shot a remarkable .587 pecentage to Detroit's .396. That the game came down to the final minute is testimony to Detroit's hustle; the ageless play of Ben Wallace, and our almost fatal inability to get defensive boards.
As the month of November draws to a close, the Clippers are still alive despite many near death experiences. The optimists will say that if you take out our first four games against playoff caliber teams, the Clippers have played .500 ball without Blake Griffin. But the pessimists can also say that we have played .500 ball against some of the worst and most injury depleted teams in the league. The Clippers needed to finish with a sizable cushion early in the season because those games agains the Lakers, Celtics, Orlando and the elite teams of the NBA loom on the horizon. But this team has been given up for dead against Denver as well and they surprised everyone. When it looked as if we would somehow find a way to lose to this Detroit team after being down by 7 at half time, they came back and squeezed out a victory. So where they go from here, nobody knows.