This is not your everyday statistic, but I am pretty sure that the Clippers set an NBA record tonight for the number of times in a single game that a team falls behind by a double digit deficit, then cuts the lead to one, without ever tying the game of taking the lead. Three times they did that - three times! That's pretty amazing.
They fell behind by 16 straight out of the gate as the Rockets exploded to a 27-11 lead. Almost as quickly, the Clippers stormed back, as a Blake Griffin three point play on their first possession of the second quarter cut the lead to 32-31. The Clippers 20-5 run over the final four minutes of the first period and the first minute of the second was remarkable in its own right. Of their 20 points, half came on slam dunks. On the other end, Houston actually scored four of their five points on a single possession - a Blake Griffin technical foul (see below) followed immediately by an Aaron Brooks three pointer.
But the Clippers couldn't get over the hump to take the lead despite having two possessions to do so, and then the Rockets began to build the lead into double digits again. After trading a couple of baskets down one, the Rockets ran off nine straight to build the lead back to ten. It grew as high as 18 early in the third, and the Clippers fought back again. This time they used a 17-3 run starting in the final minute of the third and stretching five minutes into the fourth to pull back within one. Once again, they had the ball with a chance to take the lead but missed their chance.
This time the Rockets went on an 11-2 run to immediately build the lead back to ten. After fighting back not once but twice, it seemed as if the Clippers were done, trailing by double digits with four minutes to go and with Houston back in the driver's seat. And still the Clippers fought back again.
The final comeback was unlikely in the extreme, featuring as it did four straight DeAndre Jordan makes from the free throw line (I'm pretty sure that's a personal best streak for DJ), a Kevin Martin missed free throw (those don't happen much), a Blake Griffin three, and Luis Scola fouling Al-Farouq Aminu shooting a three with 18 seconds left and the Clippers down four (AFA calmly made all three to cut the lead back to one for the final time). But the Rockets were able to get the ball to Martin, who wasn't about to miss another free throw, and Blake's potential tying three with five seconds left was straight but short.
I want to be critical of the Clippers about the loss, I really do. Houston is such a strange team - they just seem to overachieve when on paper it looks like they are completely overmatched - that it's frustrating to lose to them. But other than the fact that they just missed shots, I can't find a lot to complain about with the team. Take away the Rockets torrid shooting start, and the Clippers really played pretty good defense against them all night. The Rockets finished at 43% shooting and 9 for 29 on threes, well below their shooting percentage on the season.
But oh that start. After they missed the first shot of the game, Houston proceeded to make nine of their next ten, including three threes in that stretch. They made their first seven two pointers. Their team effective field goal percentage in the opening eight minutes, figuring in their three pointers, was over 95%; add in 6 for 6 from the free throw line, and their true shooting percentage to that point was well over 100%. They also had drawn seven fouls on the Clippers, including two each on Eric Gordon and Ryan Gomes. In short, it was a dream start for Houston - it could not have been much better.
And I wouldn't even say the Clippers were playing terrible defense. On two separate occasions during the run, the Rockets took very difficult off-balance shots to beat the shot clock buzzer - and both of them went in. Sometimes you can do everything right defensively and the other team still scores.
Rockets fans can probably point to similar possessions for the Clippers, but it did seem as if there were multiple key situations where the Rockets got an undeserved basket in the teeth of fierce Clippers defense. The two above obviously helped get them out to their hot start. But perhaps the most important possession of the game came in the fourth quarter with Houston up three and a little over five minutes left. After a made basket by Gordon, the Rockets kicked the ball ahead to Martin, but Gordon chased him down and forced him into the corner. Martin kept his dribble alive, and twice probed for the baseline drive, and each time was turned back by terrific Gordon defense. Finally, with the shot clock running down, Martin was forced into a double clutch shot with Gordon right in his grill - it's actually remarkable that he was able to get the shot off at all - and somehow it went in. That seemed to be how the game went . The Clippers would get great looks and miss, while the Rockets would take a very difficult shot and make it. Houston's final basket of the game, a crucial make with the lead down to three, was an off balance, over the shoulder no look layup by Kyle Lowry that had no business going in. It wasn't the Clippers' night, and it was the Rockets' night.
I know I said I wasn't going to be critical, and I won't be too critical of the team. Oh sure, Baron Davis played poorly (he was -16 in 26 minutes of a five point loss - ouch). And DeAndre Jordan had a good game, but still had some lapses that hurt badly. But the players more or less did their jobs. Still, even if I'm not going to be critical of the players, I think the coach deserves significant scrutiny in this one.
Where was Eric Gordon in the first half? It's really, really hard to understand why Ike Diogu, who joined the team today, would have twice as many first half minutes (10) as leading scorer Eric Gordon (5). (This is by no means a criticism of Diogu, who played remarkably well all things considered.) Where was EJ? Yes, he had two fouls, and yes a unit playing without him put together a nice run at one point. But when Blake Griffin left the court with 10 minutes to go in the second quarter and the Clippers down one, LA played the rest of the half with neither Griffin nor Gordon on the floor. Why? I mean, really, why? Is it any surprise that the lead stretched from 1 to 13 during that time? Is it news to the coaching staff that Gordon and Griffin are kind of important to the team? Do they not have access to statistical information that shows the G-men each averaging over 20 points per game, while no other Clipper is above 9? The amazing thing is that Gordon's two early fouls should have been a blessing in disguise for Vinny Del Negro. When Griffin picked up his second foul, after 14 minutes of court time without a breather, it was the ideal time to rest Blake and bring EJ back, keeping a tier one scorer on the floor at all times. Amazingly, LA was down only one, and with a fresh Gordon back in the game, they would have kept the pressure on. Instead, they went the last ten minutes of the half with neither of their leading scorers. It's bizarre. It's inexplicable. It's just plain stupid. Is it a new policy for VDN to keep players out of the first half with two fouls? If it is, they're the only team in the league with that approach. Did he forget that those guys were over there? Was he trying to prove a point? The fact that Griffin and Gordon each then played all 24 minutes of the second half without a rest makes the situation all the more strange.
Gordon finished the game with 18 points and 6 assists - all of his points coming in the second half. This would surely have been a very different game if he had been out there more. Put the loss squarely on Del Negro.
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: I'm going to go with the technical foul called against Blake Griffin near the end of the first quarter. The NBA's new emphasis on conduct that saw a deluge of technical fouls called in the pre-season and carried over into the first weeks of the season has mostly subsided, as is often the case with these things. Have the players cleaned up their act significantly? Not that I can tell. Maybe they're being a little more circumspect, a bit more respectful, but I know for a fact that things that were technical fouls the first week of the season simply aren't technical fouls now. Which puts the NBA in the counter productive position of taking an area that was already wildly subjective and inconsistent, and confusing the matter further with new policies that are announced, and rigorously enforced at first, but gradually fade away.
So when Blake lobbied aggressively that a loose ball had actually deflected off a Rocket before going out of bounds, he was lit up for a 'respect for the game' technical foul. On the surface it may seem like just one of those things, but I have a few problems with this. First of all, although the NBA did say that they were not going to tolerate demonstrative behavior, and they were handing out T's earlier in the season for indicating they way in which you were fouled, this was a different situation. Blake was gesturing to demonstrate what had happened, but he was telling the ref that the ball had gone off a Rocket, not that he had been fouled - a subtle distinction perhaps, but significant to me. It's the kind of call that does sometimes get reversed, since the initial tendency is to assume that the ball went off the defense. My bigger problem is with which referee blew the whistle for technical foul. Blake is lobbying directly to the baseline official who made the possession call. That official does not appear to have any issue with what Blake is saying, nor how he is saying it. He clearly isn't going to reverse his call, but just as clearly he is fine with his interaction with Griffin on the matter. The whistle comes from somewhere else. I wasn't at the game and could not see who called the T from the replays on TV, but of course it was Bob Delaney. Think about it - he's calling a technical on Griffin for disrespecting an official, but the official that is ostensibly being disrespected has no notion of calling a technical. How does that make any sense? With three refs working the game, can Delaney not trust one of his crew members to know whether or not he's being disrespected? And who is in the better position to make that call? Bizarre.