This is how dire things got for the Clippers tonight: Brian Cook played a few crunch-time minutes in the fourth quarter. The seldom-used forward came in with 8:19 left, the Clippers trailing 87-83, and promptly capitalized on his surprising floor time by canning a 3-pointer. Cook exited the game shortly afterward, but not before playing his most meaningful minutes since the first half of the season.
This is how bad it got for the Mavericks: Jason Terry, apparently livid over a bungled possession that ended with Eric Gordon's stripping him and then zooming the other way for a fast break layup, went bonkers on the sideline during the ensuing timeout. Terry got into teammate Jose Juan Barea's face in a heated exchange, getting himself thrown out of Rick Carlisle's huddle and later being restrained by Mark Cuban, of all people. The Mavs' super sub would spend the rest of the night on the bench.
At the time, the Clippers led by double digits early in the second quarter after outscoring the Mavs, 35-19, over the game's first 12 minutes. Dallas would win the final three frames by a tally of 88-61, Terry turning from sullen benchwarmer to giddy cheerleader as the Mavs surged back to take the lead for good.
It's really too bad the Clippers played so poorly from the second quarter on. Because what a first quarter they had. Those first 12 minutes were so impressive, so replete with hyperactive defense and beautiful fast-break execution, that I was reminded of the Clippers' first quarter in their 111-105 January upset of the Heat, when they blitzed Miami with a 44-26 run. You could attribute some of the quick start to the Mavs' sloppy play, Rodrigue Beaubois' in particular, but the Clippers just attacked, attacked and attacked. They jumped passing lanes, contested nearly every shot and repeatedly sprinted to the other end for a barrage of transition dunks and layups. For the quarter, the Clippers made 65 percent of their baskets, many of them coming in the paint. The Mavs, flustered by the Clippers' disruptive D, turned the ball over four times and shot just 27 percent.
But there also were early warning signs that the Clippers were getting sloppy themselves, and it showed in the foul column. Starters DeAndre Jordan and Jamario Moon both picked up two first-quarter whistles, meaning Vinny Del Negro, already without Chris Kaman's services because of a sprained knee, would face a delicate balancing act the rest of the way. Perhaps Del Negro had his players' over-exuberance to blame. The Clippers were dictating the early action, but their dominance felt unsustainable, as if they were getting just a little too out of control.
And when the second quarter rolled around and the Mavs had had a few minutes to recollect themselves, the Clippers' rapid-fire attack ground to a halt. Not just on offense, but also on the other end of the floor. After going scoreless in the first quarter, Dirk Nowitzki started hitting that ridiculous, wrong-footed fadeaway jumper of his, either over shorter defenders in Blake Griffin and Craig Smith. By the end of the game, Nowitzki had shot 10-for-16 and registered a line of 20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and a +30. To put that in context, the next-best performer in the plus-minus column was Barea (+15). Jordan was the only Clipper in the positive (+4), but he could've done even better than nine points, 10 rebounds and four blocks had he not been limited to 26 minutes by foul trouble.
Speaking of Barea, what a jerk. Even when the little guy is shooting poorly or coughing up the ball against the Clippers, he's still an enormous pain. Thanks in large part to Jordan's energetic presence in the paint, Barea shot just 4-for-13 and had six turnovers, but he still managed to have a big impact in his 33 minutes. The Clippers, evidently wary of letting the Mavs guard go off for another big scoring night, sent extra help every time he got into the lane, but Barea kept his head up and created for his teammates, finishing with five assists. Then, when the Clippers trailed by eight points late in the fourth quarter, Barea beat the help, buzzing into the paint for a successful floater, then added a back-breaking 3-pointer a few possessions later. At this rate, I'm beginning to doubt the Clippers' chances of ever figuring out a way to lock him down. The guy's just ridiculous, but only against the Clips, it seems.
But back to what happened in the second quarter. It seems the Clippers, when the pace finally slowed, had no answer for the Mavs' tricky matchup zone. Credit Dallas for eliminating easy looks and creating havoc everywhere on the floor, but I think this was as much about the Clippers' inability to roll with the punches as it was about the Mavs' impressive defense. After just three giveaways in the first quarter, the turnovers started to pile up for the Clips, and they had 19 over the final three quarters. Dallas took advantage, getting 22 points off the visitors' turnovers. Even more indicting were the Mavs' 25 fast break points. It felt as if the Clippers were the ones scoring loads of transition baskets early on, and yet they only finished with 16 points on the break.
The real root of the Clippers' problems boiled down to foul trouble, specifically for Jordan and Smith, who both had five fouls. When DJ committed two fouls, his third and fourth of the night, early in the third quarter, the Clippers had no choice but to go small, with no Kaman to come in and match up with Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood or even Nowitzki. Instead, Del Negro had to sub in Rhino, and with the three-guard lineup in play for long stretches of the game, it's no surprise that the Mavs ended up easily winning the scoring battle in the paint, 58-42. The prime example of the Clippers' lack of size occurred at the end of the third quarter, when Beaubois air-balled a baseline jumper, only to have Chandler make the buzzer-beating tip-in over a helpless Randy Foye. 77-75, Dallas.
Come to think of it, it's amazing that the Clippers had tied the game on the previous possession with a Mo Williams three-point play. After Griffin - who had a nice all-around game (23 points, nine rebounds, six assists) but aside from Mo, too little help from his teammates - hit a bucket 35 seconds into the third quarter, the Clippers failed to score for the next 5:48. The Clippers were struggling mightily on both ends due to their lack of height, as the Mavs, down seven at halftime, turned their deficit into a 74-62 lead. But just when it looked as if the Clippers would finish the quarter in single digits, Williams went on a ridiculous run, scoring 11 points over the final 4:28 to bring the Clips' out of their tailspin.
The fourth quarter felt a little like the first, only this time it was Dallas getting out in transition and L.A. helpless to stop the onslaught. Jordan came back in, but by then most of the damage had been done. To make matters worse, Nowitzki kept nailing impossible shots and Barea, as mentioned above, went on a nice run of his own.
Instead of snapping their eight-game losing streak to the Mavs, the Clippers simply wasted a marvelous first quarter. Jordans's foul trouble didn't help - perhaps VDN should've considered rolling the dice by playing him more in the second half, but not having Kaman hurt equally - and neither did the Clippers' failure to preserve any sort of rhythm, especially in the last two quarters. But you could tell they wanted this one; the first 12 minutes said as much. As Steve pointed out in the preview, they could've added another 50-win scalp to the mantle. Tonight, though, they only managed to play one quality quarter - a mighty fine one, but just one.
We've seen it all season. When things are going well for the Clippers, they take the momentum and run with it, raising their play to lofty levels and giving even the best teams all they can handle. But when opponents adjust and things get ugly, they get really ugly. The Clippers often times don't know how to adapt to those little changes in their opponents' game plans, and it's those times that the Clips look especially young and confused, like an entire team of Al-Farouq Aminus. Don't get me wrong - I really like Aminu and his potential - but he's clearly not ready to be a reliable contributor yet. Just four points and two turnovers in 16 minutes tonight for a team that really could've used a boost from its bench. Let's hope this offseason provides a big boost, both for Aminu and the rest of the Clippers.
One final note: Gordon had another sub-par game (11 points on 4-for-12 shooting and six assists), though it seems his wrist isn't fully healed yet and could really use the rest this summer. Still, like the other Clippers starters, he got off to a fast start, and I particularly liked what I saw from him on one play. With less than five minutes left in the first quarter, Griffin had the ball at the top of the key, with EJ stationed at the left wing. Gordon curled around one screen toward Griffin, then took the hand-off from Blake, who set another screen to give EJ a free driving lane to the basket. Gordon waited for the defense to collapse on him, then quickly swung the ball over his shoulder to Griffin, who was still standing at the top of the key, now wide open. Blake got the pass square in the hands and rose up. Two points. More of that in these last two games, please. Gordon hasn't had much success scoring lately, but it's good to see he can create for others when he stays patient.