The final score should not have been this close. The Clippers were hosting the Raptors, owners of a 6-30 road record and Andrea Bargnani-less for the night because of a sore right ankle. But of course the Clippers decided to make it interesting, blundering through some uninspired play as the Raptors exploited that sluggishness by leading nearly the entire way.
And just when it felt as if the Clippers would never snap out of it, they did. It started on the defensive end, the Clippers beginning a four-minute fourth-quarter stretch in which they held the Raptors scoreless and retook the lead. It ended with the Clippers nearly blowing that lead in the waning seconds of their 94-90 victory, a 48-minute summation of the highs and lows of being a fan of this team.
For three quarters, it was mostly lows. Now it's easy to understand why motivation would be an issue for a game like this. The Clippers are trying to ensure the first-round draft pick they traded to Cleveland doesn't come back to bite them, and while that does provide some incentive to win, it's not the same as being in playoff contention, which the Clippers definitively are not. Plus, with Bargnani sidelined, the Clippers wouldn't be missing the 27 points the Raptors' leading scorer dropped on them in their previous meeting, a 98-93 win for Toronto.
But those first three quarters were simply unacceptable. Every bad habit the Clippers have shown this season was on display. When the Clippers weren't forcing up shots or turning the ball over, they were getting pushed around by their smaller, shorthanded opponent on the other end of the floor. The Raptors were playing pretty poorly themselves, but at least they were attacking the paint. Leandro Barbosa drove to the hoop anytime he wanted, and Ed Davis held his own with Blake Griffin down low. The Clippers were getting outworked and outmuscled, and for a while, they apparently weren't engaged enough to know it.
Perhaps the prime example of the Clippers' listless play came with 10:52 left in the fourth quarter, when, going for an offensive rebound, Joey Dorsey boxed out Chris Kaman so thoroughly that the Raptors forward - a 6-foot-8 forward, mind you - found himself with the ball in his hands underneath the basket, all alone. The ensuing dunk made it 75-66, Toronto.
The Clippers would respond with a few of their own volleys over the next three minutes, three of their four baskets coming from Randy Foye, who seems to be settling into his role as scorer off the bench quite nicely. (Although he did take three more 22-foot jumpers tonight, a foot on the 3-point line in each instance. And he made two of them. Argh.) But they still weren't stopping the Raptors, who despite shooting under 40 percent for most of the game, were getting into the paint with ease.
Then this happened: The Clippers went zone, and it worked beautifully. Here's a summary of the Raptors' offensive possessions over that aforementioned four-minute period, beginning with 7:37 left in the game:
- (7:22) Shot clock violation
- (7:07) Breakaway dunk by DeMar DeRozan (this after Eric Gordon dribbled off his leg and the Raptors pounced on the loose ball to start the break)
- (6:24) DeRozan missed 3-pointer
- (6:03) Barbosa missed 3-pointer
- (5:16) Amir Johnson missed 9-foot shot
- (4:45) Jose Calderon missed 3-pointer
- (4:13) DeRozan step-out-of-bounds turnover
- (3:33) DeRozan missed 18-foot jumper
Ignoring DeRozan's dunk, that's two turnovers and five contested, ultimately unsuccessful looks at a critical time in the game. The Clippers, finally realizing their advantage down low, rode Griffin and Kaman to two made free throws and four field goals over those same four minutes to take an 85-82 lead with 3:17 left (the Clippers had not led since late in the second quarter).
Part of the reason the zone defense worked so well was that it was largely unexpected. The Clippers had gone to it at one point earlier in the game, but when the Raptors promptly scored, the scheme was quickly abandoned. For Vinny Del Negro to go back to it this late in the game was both gutsy and brilliant, as it would turn out. Where once the Raptors found easy lanes to the basket, they now ran into an extra defender, the Clippers putting an end to what had been a series of unimpeded cuts and drives to the hoop. Without these easy looks, the Raptors, already the league's worst 3-point shooting team (they entered the game connecting on just 31.4 percent from deep), wilted under the pressure.
I know this sounds overly simplistic, but another factor behind the zone's effectiveness was that the Clippers just played harder at the end of the game. After slogging through most of the night, they were suddenly all over the place, scrapping for loose balls, hustling, sprinting, doing what they should have been doing all along.
Good thing they started the process early enough - if midway through the fourth quarter can be considered early enough - because there were still a few lapses toward the end. James Johnson had a putback slam on a missed free throw by Davis. Then Davis returned the favor by tipping in Johnson's missed layup. After a Griffin dunk and a Gordon 3-pointer (the Clippers' first all game), DeRozan drove through a gap in the defense for a layup. 92-90, Clippers, with 21 seconds to go. But then Williams hit two free throws, and even though Griffin, missed two of his own moments later, the game was effectively over. The Clippers had indeed snapped out of it, and just in time.
A couple bullets on Gordon and Griffin, who led the way for the Clippers down the stretch:
After going 3-for-14 against the Lakers the night before, Gordon continued to struggle with his shot in the first half. He finished the first two quarters 2-for-7 from the field, his only two buckets coming inside the paint. The second half, though, revealed a more comfortable Gordon. He went 5-for-7 in the final two frames, sinking a few jumpers, including the 3-pointer mentioned above. In addition to his 17 points and five assists, he had three steals and two blocks and was a plus-17 for the game. The wrist might still be bothering him, but his shooting in the second half has to be a sign that he's finding ways to fight through any lingering pain.
Griffin also had a quiet first half, as Ed Davis seemed to be bothering him with his length and heady play underneath the basket. (Davis, by the way, is going to be a nice player in this league. He's long, talented and competitive. 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds tonight.) But down the stretch, something changed in Griffin. It was as if he finally realized he was too strong and too athletic for any of the Raptors' defenders. In the fourth quarter, especially, he repeatedly backed his way into the paint for quality looks, which he more often than not converted, sometimes with a dunk and a flourish. His rebounding also picked up, and he finished with 16 boards next to his 22 points, recording his 56th double-double of the season and breaking Elton Brand's franchise record (the Los Angeles one, that is; technically speaking, Bob McAdoo set the franchise mark with 69 double-doubles for the Buffalo Braves in 1974-75).