First things first: on the crucial jump ball call with 4 seconds left in the game, when the officials could not decide if the ball had gone off of Randy Foye or Joe Johnson, Clippers broadcaster Mike Smith expressed some doubt as to who should have been involved in the jump ball. Was it any player on the floor (which would have resulted in DeAndre Jordan versus Al Horford, big advantage Clippers) or the two players involved in the out of bounds play (Foye and Johnson, big advantage Hawks)? The officials put Johnson and Foye in the circle, a decision with which Vinny Del Negro seemed to disagree as well. And I must admit, I did not know what the rule book says in this case as I was watching. But I do now, because I looked it up:
Rule No. 8 - Out of Bounds
Section II-d If the ball goes out-of-bounds and was last touched simultaneously by two opponents, both of whom are inbounds or out-of-bounds, or if the official is in doubt as to who last touched the ball, or if the officials disagree, play shall be resumed by a jump ball between the two involved players in the nearest restraining circle.
Two involved players, that's Foye and Johnson, the officiating crew had the call right (as indeed one would have hoped, given that it's their job). So there's no debate there.
(Having said that, it seems to me inane to have the two involved players decide that situation. The outcome in question is which team is supposed to have the ball - what do the two specific players involved in the play have to do with it, really? If it's a too close to call, then are you not saying that it's a 50-50 situation, each team having just as much claim to possession as the other? If the rule is then intended to establish possession in the fairest way possible, then it should be a jump ball between whichever participants the teams choose. Of course, the same question more or less applies on any held ball. If Dwight Howard brings the ball down low enough for Earl Boykins to tie him up, a jump ball is clearly NOT a reasonable means of determining possession. This is a case where college hoops and their possession arrow clearly have it right, and it's strange that the NBA hasn't caught on yet.)
The crazy finish ruined a tremendous comeback and a terrific overall game for the Clippers. With Eric Gordon missing his sixth straight game with a sprained wrist, and Blake Griffin being hounded into a sub-par (for him) game by Josh Smith and Al Horford, some often maligned elements of the Clippers team - namely Baron Davis and the bench - stepped up to nearly pull out the road win.
Other than the brutal final seven minutes of the third quarter, during which the Clippers were outscored 26-4, LA thoroughly outplayed Atlanta on their own court. After watching their 8 point lead become a 12 point hole entering the final period, the Clippers were presumably dead and buried. After all, they've only won once all season when trailing entering the fourth quarter, and certainly not on the road. But they came out in the final period determined to make a game of it, and with a zone defense forcing the Hawks to take tough shots, they chipped away at the deficit. They retook the lead at 91-90 with just over four minutes left, and managed to stretch it to four on a Blake Griffin free throw with 2:14 left.
Surprisingly the lineup that did the most damage in the fourth quarter consisted of Baron and four reserves: Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Brian Cook and Ike Diogu. Even when Del Negro called timeout with just under 5 minutes left, he only brought Griffin back into the game, leaving Bledsoe, Diogu and Cook on the floor. For a team that has gotten very little from its bench in recent weeks, it was an unexpected bonus.
Baron was the driving force throughout the quarter: he had 10 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in just 9 fourth quarter minutes. He was consistently getting to the basket with an ease we haven't seen in a long, long time. For the game he had season highs in points (22), assists (13), and minutes (38); he also had 4 steals, which was only one off his season high.These season best numbers defy all logic when you realize that Baron was a game time decision for this game with a sore back. (Actually, one wonders if the extended minutes were actually a function of the back trouble. Perhaps he was able to get loose before the game, and worried about tightening up if he sat too long.)
Meanwhile, Diogu (14), Aminu (9), Bledsoe (8) and Cook (7) combined to give the Clippers 38 points off the bench for the game, and 18 of those came in the final quarter. The reserves had been averaging around 20 per game since Gordon's injury forced Foye into the starting lineup.
Unfortunately, over the course of the final 134 seconds, we saw a clear demonstration of why it can be difficult to win with young players, not to mention something akin to a public service announcement warning people NOT to choose a career in coaching because of the adverse affects on your stress levels.
- At 2:14, Griffin went to the line for two free throws, and missed the first. Now is as good a time as any to point out that the Clippers would have won this game by simply shooting an acceptable free throw percentage for a high school team. Instead they missed 10 out of 28, 64%. Clippers 96-92.
- At 1:51, after playing fine defense for 20+ seconds and forcing the Hawks into a contested three pointer, the Clippers failed to secure the offensive rebound. As is often the case, with the defense out of position on the second chance, the Hawks kicked the ball out to Marvin Williams who made a three. Clippers 96-95.
- Those two plays, about 30 seconds apart, were huge. By making a free throw and getting a rebound, the Clippers would have been up by 5 with the ball and under two minutes to play, Instead, they were up one.
- With 47 seconds left and the Clippers still up one, Baron got to the rim for the sixth time in the quarter; only this time, the ball just wouldn't stay in the basket. But the mistake wasn't that Baron missed - sometimes the ball doesn't go in. The mistake on that play was made by rookie Eric Bledsoe. As a former point guard, whenever I see a point guard getting an offensive rebound, I think to myself, "Who's back?" With Baron driving in for the layup, Bledsoe must get back on defense - he simply must, there is no other choice. Instead, Bledsoe crashed the offensive glass, Josh Smith got the rebound and made a quick outlet that led to a 2-on-1 fast break. Given that the struggle the Hawks were facing to score in the quarter, to give them an easy one in the final minute - an easy one that gave them the lead back, no less! - was inexcusable. You can bet the rookie is going to be hearing about that in the film session tomorrow.
- After the Clippers regained the lead on a Griffin jump hook, they made two mistakes on the Hawks next possession, both by rookies. The Clippers switched back to a man to man defense, and as Baron was defending Johnson, Bledsoe inexplicably decided to cheat off of the hottest player wearing a Hawks uniform, Jamal Crawford. Johnson found Crawford in the corner, but Crawford missed the three, and the Clippers dodged a bullet on their first mistake. They weren't so lucky on the second one: when the shot went up, Griffin went straight to the rim looking for the rebound, rather than boxing out his man, Josh Smith. Smith got the tip in to give the Hawks he lead again.
- With 11 seconds left, the Clippers took the lead (at 100-99 no less, which should have guaranteed the win of course, given Lawler's Law, "First to 100 wins") on two Bledsoe free throws after an offensive rebound. Now lest you accuse me of applying a double standard here, criticizing Bledsoe for attacking the offensive glass on one play, while happily taking the points on another, bear in mind that the situations were different. With 47 seconds left, holding a narrow lead, with the other guard driving to the basket, you get back. With 11 seconds left down one, everyone should be attacking the glass. I LOVE the fact that Bledsoe is such a good offensive rebounder for a guy his size - but he has other responsibilities as well on the court. At any rate, this was a huge play, and he made two huge free throws.
- The final sequence was just really, really unfortunate for the Clippers. They played GREAT defense on the initial Hawks attack, and Foye blocked Johnson's shot and probably knocked the ball off of Crawford out of bounds, which would have more or less sealed the victory for LA. Unfortunately, none of the refs, and even more surprisingly, none of the cameras, got a clear look at the play, and it's hard to argue with the jump ball call. I personally believe that it is most likely that the ball went off of Johnson, but it's really not clear.
- The next mistake came on the jump ball, when Griffin fouled Williams (and although the call went against Griffin, it could just as easily gone against Baron, as both of them were aggressively pursuing the loose ball). Now, the Clippers had a foul to give, and maybe they discussed it and decided that they should aggressively try to steal the tip, but here's why that was the wrong strategy - after controlling the ball, Williams would have been 35 feet from the basket, and in no position to attack. The Hawks likely would have called time out to set up a play, or they might have just played through to the end. If they'd played through, they would have been in a bad spot, with a scrambled offense, no play called, and the ball in the wrong guy's hands. If they'd called time out, the Clippers would still have had their foul to give. So that was a bad foul, but certainly not the worst mistake the Clippers made.
- On the final play, when Horford got to the rim, the Hawks just used Johnson as a decoy very effectively and DeAndre Jordan bit on the deception hook, line and sinker. I wish DeAndre hadn't made that particular mistake, but you have to give the Hawks credit for the play call. The Clippers were so certain that the call was for Johnson that Jordan was jumping at him the whole way.
- Give Horford credit for sinking two free throws after taking a really nasty fall. I didn't particularly agree with the flagrant 1 call against Griffin, but it was irrelevant to the outcome - it all came down to Horford's free throws in that situation. The Hawks 12 for 13 success rate at the line combined with the Clippers 18 for 28 was of course a decisive factor in the outcome.
So in those final 134 seconds, by my count, the Clippers missed one free throw, gave up two offensive rebounds (or technically three, since the jump ball counts as a team offensive rebound for the Hawks, but that one was not a mistake of any sort), committed one silly foul, and made three bad defensive blunders. Proper execution on almost any one of those seven plays might easily have changed the outcome of this game.
It could have been their best road win of the season, their biggest fourth quarter comeback (by far), and a massive momentum win at the outset of the Odyssey. Instead, it's perhaps the most heartbreaking loss in a season that has seen too many of them.