The Clippers were coming off an embarrassingly lackluster performance in Phoenix last night, and for the first half of this game, it was more of the same. For the first 24 minutes, their offensive execution was non-existent and their defense was apathetic. As a result, they were shooting just 37% at halftime and trailed by 12 points, 49-37. Even that was better than they deserved - they had trailed by as much as 16 in the first half.
It had been so long at that point since we had seen a competitive Clippers team, I began to question how they had ever looked good. Blake Griffin was and is a force to be reckoned with, to be sure, but there wasn't much else going on. The team doesn't do much in the way of running an offense beyond the high pick and roll, Eric Gordon is having trouble attacking without turning the ball over, Mo Williams is a shoot-first (and second and third) point guard who frankly isn't that great a shooter, and they're certainly not going to get much scoring from the three spot or from DeAndre Jordan at center (Chris Kaman was out again tonight with the proverbial flu-like symptoms). And it's not as if this is a great defensive team at this point. So how did they beat all those good teams earlier in the season? Where did that team go?
And then they showed up again in the second half tonight. It turns out that team won by playing enough defense to get some key stops, and by getting out and running and getting some easy baskets in transition. And they did all that by playing with a lot of energy, which has been lacking on the team for about three weeks (perhaps understandably). Ironically, it was the Thunder who seemed to get them going tonight. Still trailing by a dozen five minutes into the third, Jamario Moon made a three and Blake a two to cut the lead to seven. On the next Thunder possession, Craig Smith tied up Kendrick Perkins inside, and Perkins was assessed a technical foul for arguing the call. After the technical free throw, Perkins won the jump ball, and Russell Westbrook was called for an offensive foul when he ran over Smith. This time both OKC coach Scott Brooks and Westbrook were hit with T's for their reactionsl. From that point forward, the Clippers were the more energized team.
Particularly interesting was that even though some things went against the Clippers down the stretch, they were able to keep their heads in the game enough to pull out the victory. More times than not, this team has played well enough to win, but still found a way to lose. Tonight, they faced significant adversity, and still came out on top against a talented, motivated and red hot opponent.
Moments after taking their biggest lead of the evening to that point at two points, the Clippers had the ball with the score again tied at 80. Gordon got the ball to Griffin on the pick and roll and Griffin appeared to have a lane to the basket as he took off for the left-handed dunk. But Serge Ibaka blocked him cleanly at the rim. After Jordan picked up the loose ball, he too was denied on his dunk attempt. Westbrook took off the other way and Gordon blocked him cleanly - but was called for the foul. The Clippers then got a technical foul for wondering aloud how they had not gotten a whistle on their end, while Gordon's block was called a foul (it was, it must be said, a very bad call). Suddenly the Thunder had three straight free throws of their own and were back on top. But while we are used to seeing the Clippers fold after similar plays, this time they did not.
They tried once again moments later to swing the fully to the Thunder when the Clippers turned a 4-on-1 fast break into a turnover and a 4-on-1 break the other direction. But unexpectedly, despite these potentially devastating fourth quarter plays, the Clippers came up with big plays of their own to win the game.
Craig Smith (14 points on 6 for 8 shooting) and Randy Foye (11 points, all in the fourth quarter) were especially important off the bench tonight. Not only did Smith make some huge baskets, but he also made the defensive plays that triggered the crucial 10-0 run that launched the comeback, forcing the jump ball with Perkins and drawing the charge from Westbrook. Foye made two three pointers in three possessions (the second on an ill-advised 30 footer that happened to go in) to give the Clippers the lead. He also had a key steal in the final minute which resulted a trip to the free throw line where he iced the game.
In their 40th home game of the season, the Clippers won their 22nd game, a better home mark than either Phoenix or Utah this season. Since opening the season 1-6 in Staples Center, they've gone 21-12 at home. Obviously learning how to win on the road will be a more difficult task, but they seem to be building a pretty nice home court advantage.
They also continue to play well against the league's best teams. It's been well-documented here that the Clippers have beaten all six of the NBA division leaders, and that they are in fact the only NBA team to have done that this season. With this win over the Thunder, they run their season record against the division leaders to 7 win and 9 losses - a higher winning percentage against the elites than they have against the league as a whole. That seems to indicate that if the team can bring the focus and intensity into every game that they bring against the good teams, they'll start steadily moving up the standings.
Finally, I have to say something about Russell Westbrook and his struggles against the Clippers. He was 1 for 12 tonight, which is the worst shooting game of his career, but only just barely his worst game against the Clippers. In fact, Westbrook only has five games as a pro where he has made fewer than two field goals and two of them have come against the Clippers. He also has games of 2 for 11 and 5 for 17 game against the Clippers. It's no wonder that I've had some trouble embracing Westbrook as an All-Star - against the Clippers, he hasn't been.