Remember Friday night, how I was a wee bit frustrated with the outcome? Well, multiply that by about ten after this excruciating game. Because while at least we had the refs to blame for a massive free throw deficit in Denver, the Clippers have only themselves to blame for missing 17 free throws in a game they trailed by 3 in the final minute.
It was hard for me to conceive of the Blazers as a six-straight loss team, a team with recent losses to the Nets, Sixers and Wizards, and I was worried heading into this game. Indeed, Portland came out of the gate red-hot, and built a 17 point first quarter lead at 28-11. The Blazers played better than we had been led to believe they might, but it was also about the Clippers just playing incredibly poorly. They missed layups, they missed open jumpers, they missed free throws, they turned the ball over. It was a terrible showing. The second quarter wasn't much better as the Clippers continued to play poorly. I can remember very distinctly thinking when the score was 50-33 Blazers that the Blazers 17 point lead hadn't gotten any bigger, despite the fact that they Clippers had continued to play just as poorly as they had started the game. Of course the only explanation for that was that the Blazers had come down to the Clippers' level.
We've said this several times this season already, and it is significant - the Clippers didn't give up. They trailed by 22 at the half, and Clips Nation is accustomed to seeing poor second half efforts in similar situations in seasons past. But the Clippers came out in the second half and actually started playing good basketball. With the Blazers still struggling, LA started trimming big chunks off of the Portland lead.
So, yes, the Clippers played hard and competed. But they also showed an incredibly Clipper-like tendency to self-destruct. Still down 12 with 10 minutes to play, they used a 10-1 run to cut the lead to three. During the run they missed 5 free throws, and Portland's one and only point during the run was a technical free throw. That is to say, LA did enough to have gone on a 15-0 run, which would have given them a 3 point lead, but instead they were still 3 down. Given Portland's second half struggles in recent weeks, who knows how they would have reacted had the Clippers actually taken their first lead of the game at that point, but as it happens, we'll never know. When you fall behind by 22 points, you can't really afford to give points away during your comeback.
Although they weren't ahead, the Clippers did have the momentum facing their smallest deficit since early in the game at only 3 down. But a couple of key mistakes, you might even call them rookie mistakes, kept the game from getting any closer. Bear in mind that this is Baron Davis' third game back from injury. Eric Bledsoe, who was making his 18th consecutive start at the point guard, was in the midst of his worst game as a pro and had been a non-factor all night and the Clippers had been far more effective with Davis at the point. But Baron is still rounding into shape, and with 6:18 remaining, Vinny Del Negro brought Bledsoe back in for Baron to get the veteran some rest before the final push. At 4:35, the Clippers called timeout with the ball down 4 - it was a chance to get closer than they had been since two minutes into the game. VDN could have brought Baron back at that point, but apparently wanted to get a few more minutes for BD. Facing full court pressure from Miller, Bledsoe turned the ball over and Wesley Matthews got a layup (at which point Baron got up off the bench to check in). About a minute later, Bledsoe turned the ball over again on a bad pass. By the time Baron had the ball in his hands again there was 2:25 left and the Blazers lead was back to 8.
And still the Clippers had a chance. They quickly cut the lead back down to three, and with 40 seconds left they came up with a steal and had a 3 on 1 fast break. Blake Griffin had the ball in the middle with Baron in front of him on his left. Instead of giving up the ball immediately to let him orchestrate something, Blake kept the ball, delivered the pass to Baron too late, giving the defense precious time to recover. Baron found Ryan Gomes but Andre Miller stripped the ball and headed the other way. The Blazers made six straight free throws to account for the final margin.
It's a little ironic in retrospect how livid we in Clips Nation were that Griffin didn't get more calls in Denver Friday. It turns out, the refs aren't really doing us citizens much of a favor sending him to the line. Though the poor fouls shooting was something of a team effort, Blake was definitely the biggest culprit, making just 7 of 16 free throws. The net effect is pretty cut and dried in this game: when the score was 94-91 Blazers with 30 second left in the game, Portland was 25 for 30 from the line while the Clippers were 26 for 43. That's 13 more trips to the line, and only a plus one to show for it. Any reasonably professional level of free throw shooting would have won this game, despite all the other issues the Clippers had.
Once again, the Clippers wasted an effort that in many ways was good enough to win. In particular, they did an outstanding job defending Portland's two leading scorers, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. The two combined to shoot just 5 for 23. Aldridge was held to 4 points, his season low and the fewest points he's scored since December of last year. Wesley Matthews took up a lot of the slack with 26 points, but you certainly would like to win against the Blazers when you hold Roy and Aldridge to 22% shooting. (Despite his poor night, Roy did hit a tough three in the fourth quarter with Griffin in his face that might have saved the game for them.)
For the Clippers, Griffin had a very good game, but it would have been a great game (and a win) had he simply made his free throws. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds. Eric Gordon once again had trouble getting the ball in the hoop early, but at least this time he was getting to the line. He finished 13 for 16 shooting free throws, and wound up scoring his season average of 24. Baron played 28 minutes, and produced 14 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. I'd be very surprised if he's not in the starting lineup tomorrow night against the Kings.
Finally, there must be a mention of the rough play in this game. It was physical from the beginning. There were two ejections of Clipper players, a flagrant 2, a flagrant 1, and three other very hard fouls that were not deemed to be worthy of flagrant status. There was also a tackle that the referees missed completely. And I have to say, I have no clue how the officials draw the distinctions they do.
In the first quarter, Blake Griffin got the ball under the basket and tried to go up with it. Joel Przybilla, recently back from injury, and never what you would call a finesse player, hit Blake near the neck, and then followed through to grab his arm and throw him back. There was, as far as I can tell, no attempt to play the ball. The Portland crowd gave Przybilla a nice round of applause for putting a hard hit on the Clippers rookie, which sort of ticked me off a bit.
At the end of the third quarter, Przybilla found himself under the basket all alone, and Brian Cook of the Clippers shoved him to the ground to prevent the layup. The officials deemed this a Flagrant 2 and ejected Cook. In the ensuing scramble, Przybilla and Craig Smith seemed particularly displeased with one another. The officials took the time to look at the monitor on this one and came up with their call of Flagrant 2, which is a mystery to me. The box score says that Przybilla and Batum got double technicals at that point, but that has to be wrong. It had to be Pryzbilla and Smith, who were indeed jawing at each other.
Early in the fourth quarter as Craig Smith was going in for a layup, Rudy Fernandez flew in and hit Smith across the face and arms with both of his arms, which Smith did not like at all. Smith wanted to go after Fernandez, but was held back by Marcus Camby. The refs assessed Smith a technical for his behavior, which was his second resulting in his automatic ejection. (By the way, how much did that suck for Smith? He didn't even get the satisfaction of getting at Fernandez and STILL got ejected. You have to figure he would have at least liked to get a jab in for his troubles.) This hurt in more ways than one, since the Blazers bench was able to designate DeAndre Jordan, one of the worst foul shooters in the league, to take Smith's free throws. Fernandez' foul was deemed just a regular foul.
A few minutes later, Marcus Camby hit Blake Griffin square in the head as Blake was going to the basket and was assessed a flagrant 2. Surprisingly, Camby seemed shocked at the call, but it seems to me that you should not be permitted to just whack guys in the head, not to mention that things were on the verge of getting out of hand and the refs had to keep things under control.
In the final seconds, Batum was heading to the basket for a layup and Baron pushed him to prevent the basket. Baron reached out to try to catch Batum as he fell, and whether that influenced the call or not, the refs decided that this too was just an ordinary foul.
The NBA rule book says that a Flagrant 1 foul is 'unnecessary contact' while a Flagrant 2 foul is 'unnecessary and excessive contact.' So that certainly clears things up. The question of whether a foul is necessary is not reminds me of a great Patches O'Houlihan line from Dodgeball: "Necessary? Is it necessary that I drink my own urine? No, but I do it, because it's sterile and I like the taste." Cook's foul was absolutely necessary to prevent a layup, which is in fact little different than Pryzbilla's early foul on Griffin. Cook's foul wasn't particularly excessive, though Przybilla was in a vulnerable position, and that seems to come into play in the application of the rule.
But without having this be too partisan, let's look at Cook's foul compared to Baron's foul. How is it possible that one of those is a Flagrant 2, and the other is a just a regular foul? They were essentially identical, with the only difference being that Baron tried to hold the guy up a little. Which implies that you're allowed to hit a guy as hard as like, as long as you try to break his fall a little afterward.
Now, I mentioned a tackle that was uncalled. Did anyone else catch this play? In the fourth quarter, on a delayed fast break, I noticed Blake Griffin suddenly go flying out of bounds sprawling. I ran back the DVR, and it turns out that Andre Miller came running down the middle of the court and hit Blake at full speed, like a free safety blindsiding a receiver. It was absolutely intentional, because Miller had no other reason to be running through the lane at that time - he wasn't chasing his defensive assignment or anything like that. I am shocked - SHOCKED - that Blake didn't get off the floor and immediately deck Miller; he showed a lot more restraint than I would have in that situation (that is, assuming I was 7 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than the guy who hit me). We've been talking about opposing teams going after Blake and this was the dirtiest play I've seen in a long time - a full speed hit away from the ball. I'll be contacting the Clippers to make sure they've got the video and are sending it to the league office.
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: Hard fouls and flagrant fouls aside, there are always some strange calls in games. The most bizarre whistle of this game came early in the first quarter. On a pick and roll, Andre Miller got switched onto DeAndre Jordan. Eric Bledsoe threw the pass to Jordan, who awkwardly tried to catch the pass one-handed as he was tangled with Miller, and the whistle blew - offensive foul on Jordan, much to my surprise, as well as to the surprise of Ralph and Mike.
Now, it was blatantly obvious from the replay that Miller had hooked Jordan's left arm and wouldn't let go, which is why DJ was trying to catch the ball with one hand, and why there was contact on the play. You can also see on the replay how a ref might have missed the hook, and thought there was some contact that could have been called on DJ. But don't you also have to use some common sense if you're a ref?
When I watched the play, my immediate thought was, "Why is Jordan catching that ball with one hand? Miller must have ahold of him." Furthermore, DJ had a path to the basket - why would he both fouling Miller? - Miller was on the high side, not really impeding DJ's path. It would have made zero sense for Jordan to foul Miller in that situation, and indeed he did not. Why the referee would be fooled by Miller's hijinks on the play is beyond me.