There were any number of reasons why the Clippers were not going to win this game. They hadn't beaten the Hornets in 14 straight games. They hadn't won at all in nine straight. Most importantly, coming into the night the Clippers had the worst record in the NBA, and the Hornets had the best. But after a hard fought Clippers upset, LA's record is not quite as bad, and New Orleans is no longer the best.
The Clippers didn't make it easy on themselves. They missed 17 free throws along the way, making only half of their 34 attempts. They missed two layups in the final three minutes - and I'm not talking tough contested layups, I'm talking layup layups. They turned the ball over with a three point lead and 21 seconds left. In the end, New Orleans had the ball down two with 13 seconds left, but somehow Chris Paul threw a pass off the shin of David West as he stood wide open under the basket, and the Clippers escaped with their second win of the season. It was their first win in a close game.
Of course it shouldn't have been close. The Clippers took 11 more free throws, but only came away with two more points. As bad as the Clippers were from the line, they're actually very, very lucky that the Hornets weren't better themselves. New Orleans made 15 of 23, which is only 65%. Had they simply shot their season average they might well have won the game.
It was a strange game - almost two different games, the first quarter versus the final three quarters. The score at the end of the first quarter was 37-33 Hornets, and it seemed, on the heels of 124 from the Knicks Saturday, as if the Clippers would never stop a team from scoring ever again this season. Then the game abruptly changed. For the final three quarters, neither team scored more than 22 in a quarter, and the Clippers held the Hornets to 58 more points over those three quarters.
Did the Clippers pick up their defensive intensity? Absolutely. But I also have to remark on how the game is not always in the team's control - sometimes the opponent makes shots, and sometimes they miss them. During the first quarter, the Hornets just didn't miss. The Clippers defense definitely left something to be desired, but even on possessions where they played really well, the Hornets seemed to score. New Orleans first points of the game came on a Trevor Ariza three point runner to beat the shot clock buzzer that just happened to go in. New Orleans began the game by making four of the first five threes, and it seemed like it was going to be another one of those nights where the opposition would make a dozen threes and shoot 50% from the arc. But they only made two of their next 15. Was the defense that much worse on the first five, that much better on the final 15? Maybe a little. But it also must be said that the jump shots stopped falling for the Hornets.
Chris Paul played probably his worst game of the season, with only 14 points on 12 shots, and 6 assists against 4 turnovers. The Clippers defense down the stretch was excellent, switching screens and keeping someone in front of Paul the whole time. It does help to have bigs as athletic as Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in that situation. More importantly, the Clippers' defensive rotations were sharper than they've been this season, leaving Paul searching in vain for the right pass each time down.
In the final minutes, Vinny Del Negro went with a lineup of Eric Gordon, Ryan Gomes, Al-Farouq Aminu, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (with some offense-defense subs in the final seconds). He replaced Eric Bledsoe with Gomes at the 2:43 mark and stuck Gomes on Paul. I thought it was a bizarre decision at the time, but it certainly yielded results. Although it's hard to imagine that Gomes could stay in front of Paul on a clear out, that's not how New Orleans operates. Their go to play at the end of a game is the Paul-West pick and roll, looking for the switch to get West isolated on a smaller defender. With Gomes big enough to do a decent job on West, and Jordan and Griffin quick enough to keep Paul from turning the corner, the Hornets simply weren't able to get the shots they wanted down the stretch. In fact, the Clippers held the Hornets without a field goal over the final four and a half minutes, and even the whistles they got seemed a little dubious. In other words, the Clippers won this game with defense. In fact, down a point with a minute to play and desperate for a stop, the Clippers forced New Orleans into a shot clock violation - that's the definition of winning with defense.
If Paul was sub-par, David West was way above par. He finished with 30 on 12 of 23 shooting, and none of them were easy. The Clippers did a good job of contesting his shots all game long - but he still managed to make a bunch of them. Surprisingly, VDN went with DeAndre Jordan on West leaving Griffin on Emeka Okafor. Jordan did a good job of staying in front of West, and tried to use his length to bother his fadeaway. It was a very tough cover for DJ, but he worked hard at it the whole game and it paid off in the end.
Blake Griffin followed up his breakout against the Knicks with a solid, 24 point 13 rebound effort. He made four jump shots in the first quarter; if he can make that shot consistently, then he will be a force on offense, because right now defenses are giving it to him rather than allowing him to drive. After going 9 for 15 in this game, he's now shooting better than 50% from the field on the season. He also scored the four crucial points that cut a five point New Orleans lead down to one in the final two minutes. Although he was the leading culprit at the free throw line tonight, missing eight of his 14 tries, he made two huge ones when they counted most.
Eric Gordon had 27 points and four assists and continues to attack the basket. One thing that gets overlooked when a player is breaking down the defense is the offensive rebounding that can result. The Clippers go ahead basket was scored by Ryan Gomes on a put back. But it was Gordon, knifing through the middle, that made the play possible. As the defense rotates to stop Gordon, it leaves players unhindered on the weak side offensive glass. Gordon's play doesn't show up as anything positive in the box score - all he gets is a missed shot attempt - but he was the one who made that Gomes' big basket possible.
Al-Farouq Aminu, had a terrific first half, scoring 16 points on 6 for 7 shooting. I thought his three pointer to close the first quarter was huge. It cut a seven point deficit down to four and gave the Clippers some momentum heading into the second quarter. He struggled in the second half - he missed a layup, and also picked up a charge on a two on one fast break opportunity - but he'll learn. The more pressure situations he's in, the more comfortable he'll become.
It's just one game, and the Clippers still have the worst record in the NBA. But if there is a process to learning how to win, then this was a step in the right direction. They made it a little harder on themselves than they had to, but that just meant that they had to get a few more defensive stops, which is where they won the game. Hopefully that lesson is not lost on the young guys.