Of the Clippers' many wins over quality opponents this season, this may be the most impressive. They didn't get out to a big lead, they didn't get their fast break going, they didn't bring the house down with multiple alley oops, and it was precisely because those things didn't come quite so easily that the win was so impressive. In fact, it was the first time this season that the Clippers have won a game that they trailed entering the fourth quarter. This was a game where the Clippers struggled; to beat the Lakers in an uphill battle shows that this team has come a long way.
No Clipper struggled more than Blake Griffin. He was limited to 14 minutes in the first half by foul trouble. After taking a seat with his second foul early in the second quarter, he returned to the lineup and got his third foul almost immediately. At that point, Blake had two points on 1 for 6 shooting and 5 rebounds. The fact that the Clippers were only down by a single point at halftime, given that Griffin had had his worst half of the season, was a very good sign.
Unfortunately, through most of the third quarter things remained pretty bleak for Griffin. He missed his first four shots. He couldn't seem to get the benefit of any whistles from the refs. He missed a left handed dunk. He missed a simple tip in. It just wasn't his day. And when Kobe Bryant went off for 12 points in 4 minutes, suddenly the Clippers were down 12 and it seemed like the game was slipping away. But a funny thing happened - finally Griffin got to the line with 2:31 left in the quarter, where he made two free throws for his first points since a dunk in the first quarter, and the Clippers closed the quarter with a 13-4 to cut the lead down to 3. With Griffin finally in the game for the first time in the afternoon, the Clippers were simply the better team in the fourth quarter and the put the game away.
Vinny Del Negro deserves a lot of credit for finding a lineup that worked for the Clippers. Ryan Gomes struggled shooting the ball for the second straight game, and without a threat stretching the floor, the Lakers defense was able to swarm Griffin. Al-Farouq Aminu wasn't a lot better. Instead, Del Negro went with three guards down the stretch, with Randy Foye, Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. It was only possible because Baron was assigned to Ron Artest on defense, a pretty brilliant decision when you consider that Artest has become a non-factor on offense this season, and that the one thing he still does well is use his strength to post people. Baron battled the Lakers forward, leaving Gordon to defend Kobe. On the other end, having the extra shooter/passer on the floor in Foye paid huge dividends. The Clippers made four threes in the quarter, two each by Foye and Gordon. More importantly, the long ball opened up the inside for Griffin, who scored 10 points in the quarter. The Clippers combination of ball movement, long range shooting and post presence completely changed the game in the fourth.
Despite Griffin's early game struggles (he scored 2 points in his first 23 minutes on the floor, before scoring 16 points in his final 15 minutes), the Clippers depleted bigs of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Ike Diogu went toe-to-toe with the Lakers vaunted front court of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The Lakers' bigs went for 31 points and 27 rebounds - the Clippers countered with 33 points and 41 rebounds. The length of the Lakers definitely bothered the Clippers at times, and Griffin finished 7 for 20, while Diogu was only 1 for 6 as multiple inside shots were altered, but the Clippers didn't concede anything and it was the rebounding work of Griffin, Jordan and Diogu, as much as anything, that made the difference in the game.
I have to return to a pet subject of mine again, which is the defense of Kobe Bryant. This game was a perfect example of my point that Kobe does not deserve to be first team all defense, and in fact has not deserved the honor for years, and doesn't even play particularly good defense most of the time. Let me repeat that it is not his fault; but if the Lakers are going to refuse to give him even moderately challenging defensive assignments, it seems to me that he can't earn all-defense honors. Kobe spent the entire game defending Gomes or Aminu or Foye, while Eric Gordon was lighting up Ron Artest for a game high 30 points. It also says something about EJ - Bryant has been allowed to conserve his energy for the offensive end his entire career, but Gordon has never had that luxury. Every night, he is expected to defend the opponent's best perimeter player AND to carry the scoring load as well.
The Clippers have now won 9 of their last 13 games, and four of those wins have been against playoff teams. With back to back home wins against the Heat and Lakers, everyone's pre-season picks for the best two teams in the league, the Clippers are playing as well as any team in the NBA right now. Today they showed that they can grind out a win, even when things aren't going their way. A come from behind victory in the fourth quarter versus the Lakers? Suffice it to say, this is a much better Clippers team than we've seen in a long time.