I have a feeling that the Clippers are going to look back on this game tonight as the one they could have, should have won on this road trip. In many aspects, they played well enough to win, and they were playing a Denver team missing their three top bigs.
As it happens, three shooting stats were no doubt the difference between a win and a loss.
- The Clippers missed nine free throws, making only 16 out of 25 attempts. In a seven point defeat, that's obviously important. Consider also the fact that the Nuggets made 20 out of 22... and that they would have had one more miss had DeAndre Jordan not touched a free throw that was coming off the rim. The final margin was more or less accounted for at the free throw line alone. The Clippers have been one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league on the young season, and it will continue to cost them games this season if they don't get better. They can't even blame Blake Griffin (4 for 4) or Jordan (0 for 0) this time.
- The Clippers were 2 for 15 from the three point line. LAC has been pretty bad from deep this season (28th in the league coming into the game at just over 30%). But 2 for 15 is brutal. Eric Gordon, who had shown signs of breaking out of his long distance shooting slump with a 3 for 7 night in Wednesday's win, was 0 for 4 in Denver.
- Chris Kaman was 5 for 18 from the field for the game. Kaman has struggled mightily all season to make shots. As Mike Smith astutely pointed out during the broadcast, six games into the season, Kaman has shot well for exactly 1 out of 24 quarters of basketball. He has been beyond terrible in the other 23. The amazing thing is the shots he is missing. Of his 5 makes tonight, two were mid range jump shots. The majority of his misses on the other hand were within five feet of the hoop, and many of them were absolute gimmes. It's obviously in Chris' head at this point, but he's absolutely killing the team with all of these missed opportunities. It's demoralizing to run a set, get a great shot, and then simply miss it.
Essentially, if any one of the above shooting problems are fixed, the game comes down to the wire. Any two of them, and the Clippers win easily.
Like I said, in many ways they played well enough to win. Not that Denver played badly; but with their three best bigs out of the game, they were really shorthanded. But a few of the guys they did have played great. Carmelo Anthony scored at will, finishing with a season high 30 on 14 of 20 shots, many of them against solid defense. There aren't many players in the league who make tough shots look easy like Carmelo. One gets the impression that had the Clippers been closer in the fourth, Carmelo would have not let Denver lose. Whenever they needed a bucket, he was able to get one. Likewise Al Harrington had a big night, making 7 of 12 shots, many of them also with high degrees of difficulty.
The bright spots for the Clippers were the rookie starters, Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe, and Craig Smith off the bench. It tells you something that the Clippers were able to shoot 50% from the field as a team when Kaman was 5 for 18. Griffin had his best offensive game as a pro - not just because it was a career high of 26, but because of the shots he was making. He converted his spin move a couple of times, he made a nice jump hook, he made the turnaround bank turning to his right shoulder, and he made some face up jumpers as well. Here's the most intriguing stat of the game for me: Blake made 11 of 18 shots, and I don't believe he had a single dunk (check me if I'm wrong). That's eleven field goals where he did something other than simply catch a lob and dunk the ball. That's a pleasant surprise. Not that I don't like dunks, but we know he can do that. For him to score a career high by making shots other than dunks is a significant milestone.
Bledsoe was once again terrific, recording a double double with 12 points and 13 assists. He got out of control at times and did rack up 4 turnovers, but when you balance those against the 13 assists, that's not bad. He was 6 for 9 shooting, converting that tear drop a couple more times, and also finding his way to the rim on several occasions when his man left to double team a big. In a way, it's surprsing how blasé I am about his performance. Ho hum, Eric Bledsoe had a double double. After his performance on Wednesday, it's like we're already expecting him to be this good. But really, this is extraordinary.
Smith did what he does, making 8 of 9 shots around the basket. He finished the game with a plus/minus of +6, and it's really a shame that the Clippers wasted this performance. Smith's good work left coach Vinny Del Negro searching for ways to get him on the floor with Blake, since they both needed to be out there tonight. That's a situation we should be looking for in the future. Maybe Griffin needs to slide over to the five some, particularly if Kaman continues to struggle. They tried that down the stretch of this game, but unfortunately they were unable to get any stops to cut into the lead.
To his credit, Eric Gordon ended up posting a pretty good line for the game after starting 1 for 5 - 20 points on 12 shots, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers. But his was a story of missed opportunity. Four missed threes and five missed free throws were the difference between a pretty good game, and what could have been a great game.
So yeah, this was a game to win. The Clippers are now heading into three straight nightmare games, against the teams they never beat, in the buildings where they never win. If they can make their free throws, if they can make their threes, if Kaman starts making easy shots... even then, it will be tough to win. If any of those things don't happen, you can forget it.