Longtime readers of Clips Nation may be wondering about the delay on this recap. Did Steve have Friday night plans, forcing him to watch the game on the DVR, so that he didn't finish watching until long after the game had concluded? Where is the dang recap? What's taking so long?
Well, I watched the game live. Usually I like to sit down right away and write my recap as soon as possible. The game is fresh in my head, it's good for business since it gives everyone something to read and comment on, and it lets me move on to other things. But tonight I've just been avoiding this moment. Because frankly, I'm not at all pleased to write about this game.
Obviously Cleveland's losing streak was going to end at some point. They weren't going to lose every game for the rest of the season and run their losing streak to 55. Nor are they now going to finish this season with 9 wins, tying the all time futility mark. They're going to win more games this season, and the streak was going to end against SOME team. But why did it have to be against the Clippers?
Let's be clear about one other thing: this was not the Cavaliers team that lost 26 straight games and set a new NBA record for consecutive losses. Because the last 16 of those losses came without Mo Williams, arguably their best player, who was out of the lineup with a hip injury. He returned for them tonight, a bit unexpectedly, and he was nothing short of great. From the moment he checked into the game he was slicing and dicing the Clippers on his way to 9 first half assists. He finished the game with 14 assists, tying a season high, and he did so in just 31 minutes off the bench. He also scored 17 points and hit the game tying basket on a VERY difficult jumper with 6 seconds left. It's not like I've watched a lot of Cavaliers games this season (I think I've watched one before tonight), but I can tell you this much - they're better with Mo Williams in the lineup.
So the Clippers didn't lose to a team that had lost 26 straight. Then again, the Cavs had lost 10 straight and 20 out of 21 WITH Williams in the lineup, so they're still pretty much the worst team in the NBA. In other words, there's still plenty of reasons to hang your head if you're the Clippers.
Starting with the defense. The Cavaliers are last in the league in offensive efficiency. They are 29th in field goal percentage, at just under 43% on the season. The Clippers gave up 110 points in regulation, and allowed them to shoot 50% from the field. Terrible. Most appalling of all is that the Cavs, devoid of anything resembling a low post threat, scored 52 points in the paint. How is that even possible?
In addition to Williams, both J.J. Hickson and Antawn Jamison had huge games. Jamison tied his season high with 35 points, and sank the dagger three pointer in the final 24 seconds of overtime with 5 seconds on the shoot clock. Hickson had 27 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks. Among those blocks was the play of the game - a rejection of a Blake Griffin dunk attempt with 3:30 left that turned into a transition three pointer on the other end. It was the first time this season that Griffin has had a dunk blocked, and I'd venture that it will be the last time.
While the Clippers' defense was porous, the offense was mostly fine. Baron Davis had 26 points (the third time in five games of this road trip that he has upped his season high), 7 assists and zero turnovers. Randy Foye scored 23. Griffin finished with 32 points and 13 rebounds.
But although Blake's final numbers look great, he was less than impressive down the stretch. He was 8 for 16 from the field at the end of three quarters, but finished the game 11 for 26. That puts him at 3 for 10 in the fourth quarter and overtime, when the game was on the line. And one of those 3 field goals was a cherry picking dunk. The dozen or so isos the Clippers ran for Griffin down the stretch resulted in just one basket, seven misses and two turnovers. Going into the season we thought that he was a long way away from being a player that the Clippers could just throw the ball to on offense and get a bucket - we've started to think maybe he is that guy after some great games. But you know what? He's not that guy. Not yet anyway. He will be, but he's not that guy yet. Vinny Del Negro would have been better off calling Baron's number down the stretch as he was able to break down his defender pretty consistently; but clearly the Clippers missed Eric Gordon tonight, as they have in every game Gordon has sat out.
As if the loss didn't sting enough, non calls both in regulation and overtime seemed to go against the Clippers. On the final play of regulation, Baron Davis' attempt appeared to be on it's way down when it was rejected by Hickson. I'll tell you this much - when an eight foot shot is blocked two feet from the rim, it's probably going down. And I'll tell you something else - that block, during the other 47 minutes of the game, is a goal tend. Then, with 24 seconds left in overtime, the Clippers down one in need of a stop, Ryan Gomes grabbed a rebound and was then knocked to the ground by Hickson going after the rebound Gomes already secured. No foul was called, the ball went off Gomes out of bounds, and on the subsequent inbound play Jamison hit his three to essentially end the game. The Clippers were victimized on both of those plays by the referees' tendency to swallow their whistles at the end of close games - a phenomenon documented impressively in the book Scorecasting, which I'm currently reading. But if the intent is not to impact the game via officiating, they achieve the opposite by ignoring obvious fouls and violations in critical situations. If goaltending is the correct call, then it's clearly a problem to allow it to happen at the end of a close game - a much bigger problem then not calling it at any other time in fact.
I also have to say a word about the Clippers' performance in close games this season. In games decided by one possession (and I'm including all overtime games even if the final margin is greater than 3, since those games clearly could have been decided by one possession in regulation), the Clippers are 2-7; and the two wins are deceiving in that we know that neither the win in Chicago nor the one in Sacramento demonstrated the team's ability to close out a game. On the contrary, the Clippers were dreadful down the stretch in each of their one point wins, and only escaped humiliating defeats when their opponents missed crucial free throws on the final play. So basically, the Clippers have only won close games this season when their opponents have run out of time and/or missed free throws. Take a handful of those games the Clippers arguably should have won, switch the results, and suddenly LA is legitimately in the playoff race.
Luck plays some role in this, it would seem. Just on the first five games of the Odyssey alone, the Clippers have lost two games that they led in the final 10 seconds. In Atlanta, a great defensive play that seemed to knock the ball off Joe Johnson was ruled to be a jump ball, and the Clippers lost at the buzzer. In Cleveland, Williams hit a jumper falling away with a hand in his face to tie the game in regulation. The Clippers are that close to being 3-2 on this trip instead of 1-4.
It's to be expected that a young team might have difficulty closing tight games. The task hasn't gotten any easier with Gordon out of the lineup. But as long as the team can't win the close ones, they still have a long way to go.