Leave it to the Clippers to, in the final, meaningless game of the regular season, simultaneously tantalize and frustrate their devoted but very confused fans. A huge 30 point win in the final game of the season wouldn't have mattered a bit in the end - let's face, what the front office does to fill the void at small forward, or to lock down some of the key pieces of the team long term, has a bearing on the future of this team, while the outcome of an April game against Memphis does not. But still, it would have been nice to end the season on a high note. The Clippers appeared well on their way to doing just that, building to a magnificent crescendo as they took a 29 point lead into half time, and briefly grew it to 30 in the opening minute of the fourth. But what had been a Beethoven symphony was highjacked in the final movement by Schoenberg and descended into an atonal mess, robbing us of the crescendo we craved.
And wasn't this game a rather nice microcosm of the season? Incredible highs where the team absolutely felt like it had arrived, such as wins over Miami and San Antonio and Boston and the Lakers. And equally low lows, where they seemed to have no clue what they were doing on offense or defense, like losses to Cleveland and New Jersey. On this Wednesday night, we got to experience it all in a single night.
I should point out that I missed the early stages of the game. I have a series set up on my DVR for Prime Ticket, but this game was on FSN West instead, and so it was not recorded automatically. When I sat down to start watching at 8:30 I discovered the error. In my initial panic, I came across the ESPN broadcast, and actually subjected myself to Mark Jackson for several minutes (I'm still recovering from that experience). Then I realized that it must also be on a local broadcast since only TNT has exclusive rights, and I tracked down the Fox Sports broadcast and the reassuringly inane banter (or is it inanely reassuring banter?) of Ralph and Mike.
Not to belabor the point, but before I escaped, I heard Mark Jackson offer this tidbit:
Certainly a big time jump from last year to this year for Marc Gasol.
Scintillating. Does the guy even watch games? Does he have access to the internet? Does he have any clue at all what is happening? Or maybe I'm being too harsh. In fairness, he did not specify the direction of the jump.
I began watching just before the Blake Griffin-Eric Bledsoe break that ended with Blake flushing what appeared at first to be a terrible pass. Every once in awhile Griffin makes me gasp - this was one of those times. I knew he wanted the lob back, and I felt that Bledsoe had missed the window, and then he threw more of a direct pass than a lob - so when Blake actually managed to catch and jam the thing in the blink of an eye, it caught me totally by surprise.
That dunk was near the start of a 16-2 run the Clipper sused to close the first half. They were playing defense, they were forcing turnovers, they were running, they were making shots, they were rebounding... they looked great. And they did none of those things in the second half.
Since the second half is most of what I actually watched, I'm left with a particularly bad taste in my mouth. Maybe everyone else feels the same. or maybe there was enough good stuff in the first half to offset it. You know, it's tough staying focused with a big lead in the NBA. Almost any team has a bit of a let down after building a really big cushion. For the Clippers, it just seems to spiral downward once they lose their mojo. Just five days ago in Dallas they raced to a 16 point first quarter lead and appeared to be way more than Dallas could handle, only to get sloppy and get outscored 50 to 23 over the next 20 minutes. This game felt eerily similar - in fact, the Grizzlies outscored LA by 20 points, 34 to 14, over 12 minutes of game time tonight, after Dallas had engineered a 31 to 8 run in 11 minutes last week. It's one thing to give up that sort of run from the outset of the game - who does it after thoroughly controlling the game to that point? It's psychotic. The Clippers would likely have lost all of this lead as they did in Dallas except that (a) the lead was bigger and (b) Memphis had less time. Had the game gone on much longer, the Grizzlies would no doubt have won.
The Memphis rally got started in one of the more fascinating sequences you'll ever see - a seven point possession for the Grizz late in the third quarter. Craig Smith got tangled up with Iranian giant Hamed Haddadi, and gave him a shove, just as Sam Young's three was dropping through the net. Smith was assessed two technical fouls and a flagrant on the play (which seemed like a lot, but whatever), resulting in three free throws after the basket (I can only guess that the "two shots to make one" situation announced at Staples had to do with the fact that this all happened after a made basket - a standard foul called away from the ball on a make results in a single shot, so that rule must apply to flagrants as well - only with a flagrant, you get two chances. Mike Smith's explanation that you can only have a maximum of four points was clearly wrong). At any rate, they made two of the three free throws and then took the ball out of bounds, after which they scored another two. The lead went from 23 to 16 on a single trip down the floor, which is why the comeback seemed to catch everyone a bit off guard.
But the Clippers held on, notching their 32nd win of the season, a 3 win improvement over last year. Blake Griffin recorded his second triple double of the season - his second 30-10-10 in fact. The fact that he got his last two rebounds of the game in the final 5 seconds, the tenth a miss of his own shot, will be forgotten to history. It's in the scorebook now. Griffin also had two key buckets down the stretch when the Clippers were getting pretty desperate.
Considering that the team began the season 1-13, and was 5-21 on December 15th, the last four months have been a pretty startling turnaround, inconsistency be damned. In the final 56 games of the season, they won 27 and lost 29. Digging into those numbers a little deeper, we see that their schedule featured four more road games than home games over that time. Their 18-8 home record since mid December works out to a .692 winning percentage - their 9-21 road record over the same period is .300. Basically, when you consider the schedule, they played .500 ball for the last four months. And they did most of that with two starters injured.
The good news is that sitting here at the end of another regular season devoid of playoffs, we're free to focus on the startling potential of this team, while ignoring the disturbing issues if we like. There's no question that the team is young, and with youth comes inconsistency. While we can be fairly certain that young teams will be inconsistent, there's no guarantee that consistency will arrive with experience. Still, if this group is kept together and grows and matures and improves as it should, this might be the last time for awhile that the Clippers and their fans are idle in May.