Here's one thing the Clippers definitely don't want to do. They don't want to build a lead of 20 points or more in the first half. Because when they do that, they are 0-2 this season.
As they did against Toronto a month ago, the Clippers had everything going for them early in this one. They built a 26 to 8 lead after a 16-0 run in the first quarter, and pushed that lead to 20 in the second quarter. But as often happens, LA lost it's focus and intensity when things were going so smoothly. Then, as the lead began to dwindle, they suddenly couldn't do anything right.
In fact, the most amazing thing about this game to me isn't that the Clippers lost a game they had led by 20 - it's that they still had a chance to win it with under a minute to play. The Knicks outscored the Clippers 30 to 14 in the third quarter to erase LA's 16 point halftime lead, and truthfully, the Clippers were just as inept in the fourth quarter. The Knicks were getting layups throughout the final period, while the Clippers were throwing desperation shots at the rim. Amazingly, enough of those shots went in that the Clippers regained the lead on a Baron Davis (desperation) three with 36 seconds left. Were I Knick fan and the Clippers had won this game, I would have been incredulous. Al Thornton made an eight foot left handed finger roll, he made a running hook shot, Chris Kaman drew a questionable foul, and Baron Davis drained a 30 footer, all at the very end of shot clocks. That's 9 of the Clippers' 19 fourth quarter points scored on possessions where LA had nothing worthwhile happening. In addition to the lucky shots, the Clippers caught some huge breaks: an offensive foul called on Jared Jeffries off the ball about the same time, if not after, Baron fouled Gallinari in the act of shooting; a Chris Duhon 8 second violation (by a millisecond at most). The Clippers went into the fourth tied, and played incredibly poorly - but circumstances and a little luck kept them in it until the final possession.
On the defensive end the Clippers pick and roll defense made Chris Duhon and David Lee look like Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Time after time after time Duhon turned the corner on the center pick and roll and headed down the lane to the rim where he either finished uncontested or dished to Lee. Lee finished with a game high 25 points while Duhon had 17 and 10 assists.
After the Clippers took that unlikely lead in the final minute, they just needed a solid defensive stand to steal the win. The Knicks went to Al Harrington, 3 for 14 at the time. Al Thornton defended it well, and forced Harrington into a very difficult baseline fadeaway. For some reason that only he knows, Chris Kaman decided to help, although Thornton showed no signs of needing help. He left Lee and went leaping at Harrington, though he had no chance of getting the blocked shot. With Marcus Camby screened out by Jared Jeffries, the Clippers were left with all of their front court players out of the play, and Baron Davis and Eric Gordon contendnig with Lee, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler for the rebound. Baron actually battled valiantly, but he had little chance and Lee put the go ahead bucket in on the third effort with 28 seconds to go. Rewatching the play, it's obvious that the most likely outcome would be an offensive rebound basket - Kaman took himself completely out of the play and left the guards to try to cope with one of the best rebounders in basketball.
The Clippers had two more chances, down one and then down two after Duhon made one of two free throws. The first trip resulted in an Al Thornton offensive foul (a call that could have gone either way, but a play disturbingly reminiscent of Corey Maggette's usually ill-fated attempts on last minute possessions) and a Rasual Butler three that came up short (he got a clean look courtesy of a nice play by Baron).
Eric Gordon was almost unrecognizable in this game. He was 2 for 8 (although he did get to the free throw line ten times) and his ballhandling was frightening. He mishandled the ball on the dribble at least four times, often with no defensive pressure at all. His turnover at 1:28 was one of the worst passes I've ever seen - I actually screamed 'NO' as I watched the ball leaving his hands. I knew exactly what he was trying to do (find Camby on the weak side over the top), and I knew that it wasn't close to open. I have no idea why he didn't realize it wasn't open.
Chris Kaman was 6 for 7 in the first half and then made his first shot in the second half. He missed his next six. This is actually a pattern we saw from Chris earlier in the season - strong first halves, followed by a disappearing act. The their credit, the Knicks did a job on him in the second, sending some of the most aggressive double teams I've ever seen at the guy. The minute he caught the ball on the block, a double teamer absolutely sprinted at the guy. Although Chris didn't directly turn the ball over from the pressure, the Clippers were clearly thrown off their pins by the strategy. LA spent the entire second half heaving trying to make something happen late in the shot clock.
Another problem with the LA offense tonight, and it's certainly one we've seen before, was the inability to make an entry pass. In an offense predicated on isolation post ups, you have to be able to deliver the ball. Instead what happens is the Clippers get tunnel visioned on a play call they can't initiate, and forget to do anything else. Several times in the fourth, sometimes trying to get the ball to Baron against Toney Douglas, other times trying to force feed Kaman, the Clippers held the ball and tried to make an entry pass to initiate the offense, to the point where there was no longer enough time on the shot clock to do anything other than take a couple dribbles and shoot. They either need to make that pass quickly or switch to option B; holding the ball until it's too late to do anything is not a recipe for success.
This one hurt. The Clippers showed how well they are capable of playing for a half - and then they showed how poorly for the next half. A win would have brought them to within a game of .500 with a winnable game in Philadelphia next. Instead, they are 11 and 14, with the Spurs, Rockets and Suns looming after the Sixers.
There's time to salvage this trip - but let's hope they don't build any more 20 point first half leads.