There was something inevitable about this game. Even as the Clippers were building a 12 point first half lead, and even when they still led by 11 in the third quarter, you just knew that the Mavs were not only going to catch them, but were probably going to run away with the game. And yet there was very little predictable about the precise way in which it all happened.
For instance, who could have predicted career games from not one but two Dallas role players? Neither Tyson Chandler (9.3 points per game) nor J.J. Barea (7.9) is averaging double digits this season. And each of them had career nights tonight. Chandler has never been a big scorer, and his 21 points was only the 14th time in a 10 year career that he's been over 20; but it was the first time he's done it at a rate of over a point a minute, 21 points in 17 minutes (he was limited by foul trouble). For good measure, it was also the best free throw shooting night of his career, as he made all 11 (his previous best was 9 for 9). Meanwhile, Barea scored 25 points on only 12 shots. He made 9 of those, including 3 three pointers. It wasn't his career high, but it was tied for the third best scoring night of his career, and his scoring efficiency was absolutely ridiculous. Combined, Chandler and Barea were 14 for 17 with three three pointers, and 15 for 15 from the line, for 46 points in 50 minutes. That's a rate of 44 points per 48 minutes from a couple guys who combine to average 17 points per 48 minutes on the season. The true shooting percentage for Barea and Chandler combined for the evening was 97.5%. So tell me: who saw that coming? (I guess I did, at least in the case of Barea, since I picked him for the "Superstar for one game" in the preview, but even I didn't see this coming.)
With Dallas' leading scorers Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry under wraps for most of the first half, Chandler and Barea carried the team and kept them within striking distance, despite the Clippers shooting 70% until well into the second quarter. That of course contributed to the feeling of inevitability - Nowitzki and Terry weren't both going to stay quiet all night (neither did in fact) and the Clippers weren't going to shoot 70% all night (though they did finish at almost 56%).
The thing that really killed the Clippers was turnovers. They didn't commit a single turnover in the first 10 minutes of the game, and they led 33-25 after one period. They had a jaw dropping 12 turnovers in 14 minutes by the time the second quarter ended. Somehow they still managed to tread water and maintain the 8 point lead into halftime, but they were living very dangerously, and it was clearly going to catch up to them if they didn't clean up their act. They didn't.
There are a handful of truisms in the NBA. One is that if you can shoot 50%, you will usually win. Another is that if you turn the ball over 20 times or more, you will usually lose. So what happens when you do both in the same game? The Clippers shot almost 56% for the game, their second best shooting night of the entire season, but they turned the ball over 23 times, their third worst night in a season that has seen many bad nights for turnovers. What was especially maddening about this game were the number of completely unforced turnovers. Eric Bledsoe carrying the ball, Randy Foye dribbling the ball out of bounds when he wasn't even being pressured, Baron Davis and Bledsoe each dribbling off their own knees; it wasn't that the Mavs played particularly outstanding defense. The Clippers were just terribly sloppy. Baron racked up 7 turnovers and Bledsoe had 4 - that's 11 turnovers from your point guard position. Add in 3 turnovers each from Al Farouq Aminu and Griffin, and you have 10 turnovers from the three rookies. The stat is unofficial (and not consistent with numbers in the box score), but at one point in the first quarter Prime Ticket showed a graphic that had the Clippers up 10-0 in points off turnovers; early in the fourth quarter, the same graphic read 26-12 - a 26-2 reversal in the middle section of the game.
One sequence at the end of the first quarter foretold bad tidings for the Clippers in this game. The final 128 seconds of the quarter featured:
- 2 DeAndre Jordon missed free throws;
- a turnover inbounding the ball after a made Dallas basket, under token pressure;
- an offensive rebound allowed on a missed free throw;
- Bledsoe missing 1 of 2 free throws;
- A terrible, panicky pass from Aminu that resulted in a Jason Terry layup;
- 2 missed free throws from Griffin.
That's two bad turnovers and 1 for 6 from the line in about 2 minutes. I know it's a young team, but come on!
And despite all of that - despite 23 turnovers, and career nights from Chandler and Barea, and the absence of the injured Eric Gordon, and the roughing up of Blake Griffin who had to leave the game late in the third quarter after a flagrant foul by Brendan Haywood - despite all of that, the Clippers still could have won this game if they'd only made their free throws. They outscored the Mavericks by 4 from the field, and Dallas had an advantage of only two in free throw attempts for the game. But Dallas made 28 of 30 free throws, while the Clippers made just 17 of 28. That's an 11 extra points on the scoreboard, when they only took two more free throws. And yes, the Mavericks are a better free throw shooting team on the season, so a disparity is to be expected, but they're not that much better. In fact, if both teams had shot their season averages in this game, the Mavs would have made 23 of 30, and the Clippers would have made 19 out of 28 - and the game would have ended in a 107-107 tie (all other things being equal).
So the Clippers wounds included many that were self-inflicted. Make your free throws. Take care of the ball. How much better can this team be when they can just do those theoretically simple things? As of now, the team is last in the league in free throw percentage, and 2nd in the league in turnovers committed. No wonder they're 3-14 on the road.
Incidentally, despite Ralph and Mike's discussion of the Mavs as a potential factor in the Western Conference playoffs, I remain unimpressed. There's simply no way that Barea and Chandler are that good, and Terry is shooting just 43% from the field, which seems like a better indicator of where he is than his 11 for 22 tonight. I'm not convinced they've got a second scorer on this team, and they certainly don't have a third scorer. Chandler is having the best season of his career, and that's certainly a bonus for them, but he's still a very limited player, tonight's performance notwithstanding. Unless Rodrique Beaubois is a lot better than he looked in Summer League, I think this team is a first round casualty in the playoffs.
Finally, a word on hard fouls. Chandler picked up four fouls tonight, Haywood three and Ian Mahinmi three, and most of those ten fouls were committed on Blake Griffin. Haywood's flagrant one was the only one that was particularly aggressive, but it was the second time in two games that Haywood has taken Griffin to the floor with a hard foul (back in October it was not deemed to be a flagrant foul). The simple fact of the matter is that the strategy is working. Griffin was 7 for 16 from the field, and 8 of 14 from the line for 22 points. The fouls cost Chandler some playing time with foul trouble, but other than that, it worked. It kept Griffin in check and kept the Clippers offense out of sync. They simply played Griffin as physically as they could, up to and just beyond the point where the ref would blow the whistle. But until Blake starts making more of his free throws, this is going to be the reality for him. There's a point near the basket where it makes much more sense to foul him than to let him shoot, but you have to foul him hard to make sure that he won't make the shot. This is a recipe for disaster. Blake will continue to hit the floor - hard - because it's a solid defensive strategy against him. How different would his line look if he were 12 for 14 for 26 points? If and when he starts making his free throws consistently, the strategy of roughing him up becomes much less attractive. Until that time, Clips Nation is going to have to endure many more anxious moments like tonight where we're wondering just how badly Griffin was hurt when he was thrown to the ground.
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: I've gotten away from this feature a little bit, sometimes just because I just don't have the time. But there was one call that grabbed my attention tonight. Very early in the game, Nowitzki caught the ball near the left elbow and turned to face the basket with DeAndre defending him. The whistle blew, and the ref called traveling.
Now, I went back and watched the play again, and Dirk did indeed slide his pivot foot. But it was a slide - not a change of pivot foot, not a step. Basically, it was no different than stuff that goes uncalled probably 20 or 30 times in any NBA game.
I've actually been thinking about a project called "You could call traveling on every play" where I watch a game - any game - in minute detail, and apply the letter of the law from the NBA rule book to every play. I believe that there would be literally 100 traveling violations in any game you subjected to such scrutiny. This was one of those travels - clearly a violation based on the rule book, but clearly not a violation based on the reality of how games are actually officiated. It was no different than plays that get ignored constantly. And that drives me completely bananas. Where is the consistency? How was that a travel? Is this a Tuesday in Dallas rule?