Let's be clear - the Los Angeles Clippers do not win games like this. They stay close, they have their chances to win, but in the end, they lose. That's why they're the Clippers. So maybe, more than anything else, this is the sign that Chris Paul is right, and these really aren't the same old Clippers. Because there's no way they win this game in any other season. Not like that.
Throughout the fourth quarter, it felt like a heartbreaking loss was inevitable. For while the Clippers were playing outstanding defense (their best defense of the season, by far), they couldn't seem to build a lead. Makeable shots spun out of the basket, loose balls wound up in Miami's hands. Twice in the fourth quarter, long after play had continued in a direction favorable the the Clippers, a whistle blew with a belated (really, really belated Clipper foul). Those fouls would have been questionable if they'd been made when they happened - to decide seconds later, well Vinny Del Negro must have been beside himself.
Fortunately for the Clippers, when Miami did get to the line, they often missed. It's ironic that the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA benefited in this game from their opponent shooting even worse. The Heat missed 14 free throws in the game, 7 of those in the fourth quarter alone, when they were 9 for 16.
The final seconds of regulation were excruciating. After LeBron James fouled Chauncey Billups while he was shooting a three pointer, Billups made all three free throws to give the Clippers a 2 point lead (matching LA's biggest lead since 6 to 3), the Clippers seemingly had the game wrapped up on several occasions. First, Dwyane Wade dribbled the ball out of bounds with 22 seconds left and the officials indicated it would be Clipper ball. However, as is standard at the end of the game, they reviewed the replay which clearly showed the ball going off of Billups' foot. Then, after being fouled with 16 seconds left, LeBron missed the second free throw, and the rebound seemed headed directly into Blake Griffin's hands. Instead, Chris Bosh tipped the ball away, and Dwyane Wade saved it off of DeAndre Jordan. Once again the officials went to the replay, and once again it was Heat ball. (I honestly don't know what I think the right call was on that one - did the ball hit the line before Wade saved it, did Wade step on the line himself? It was impossible to tell from the replay they showed.) The ball wen to James again, and this time he traveled - only they didn't call it, and awarded him two free throws again. Again, he made just one of them, tying the game and forcing overtime.
That's four times in 20 seconds when I thought it might be Clippers ball with the lead - two replays, a missed rebound and a missed travel. So of course, the Clippers would lose right? Instead LA came out and dominated the overtime, holding Miami to a single Mario Chalmers three pointer in the extra period.
Chris Paul had his best game as a Clipper with 27 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and only one turnover, but the game ball has to be to DeAndre Jordan. DJ had 8 points, 11 rebounds, and most importantly 6 blocked shots (he's leading the NBA in blocks per game). Half of Jordan's blocked shots occurred in the fourth quarter and overtime, and significantly the Clippers retained possession on each of them. He also scored all eight of his points from the final 30 seconds of the third quarter to the end of the game, including a huge basket in overtime and the exclamation point dunk on the game with 5 seconds left. His basket a couple of minutes into overtime that stretched the lead to four points was unusual for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it wasn't a dunk. For another, he scored it with his right hand, something that the left-handed Jordan rarely does.
In the end, the Clippers won this game with defense (and with a little help from Miami's free throw shooting). Particularly in the second half, they contested shots, they scrambled, they rotated and they simply worked harder than we've seen them work this year. Billups was giving away 3 inches to Dwyane Wade, while Butler was giving away about 40 pounds to LeBron James, but they didn't back down. And even when the primary defender was beaten, someone was waiting at the rim to challenge the shot (usually Jordan). If the Clippers can play defense this well every night, they can be a very good team.
And how great is it to keep beating the Heat in LA? There are several teams fans like to root against in the NBA, and Miami is surely high on the list. For the
third fourth straight year, the Clippers have beaten the Heat in Los Angeles, and this year it means they win the season series since it's their only meeting. Even before James and Bosh joined the team, it was fun beating the Heat - now, it's extra fun. Of course, it would be even more fun to beat the Lakers on Saturday.
- As is frequently the case, in a close game that the coach really wanted to win, Vinny Del Negro shortened his rotation quite a bit. He essentially went with seven guys, the starters plus Mo Williams and Reggie Evans. Randy Foye (6 minutes), Ryan Gomes (5) and Brian Cook (4) saw very little action. While those are certainly the right seven guys to get the bulk of the minutes, I honestly have no problem with Foye and Gomes getting more burn than that - they can hold their own for 10 or 12 minutes a game. But Cook needs to be velcroed to the bench.
- Caron Butler has been terrific for the Clippers. He scored 20 points tonight, for the third straight game. He also worked his tail off guarding LeBron. He was by no means perfect on defense, but the effort was terrific. Let's face it, no one has the combination of size and quickness necessary to defend James - Caron comes as close as almost anyone.
- Reggie Evans is doing what he was brought in to do. He grabbed 8 rebounds in 21 minutes tonight, and helped the Clippers hold their own on the boards. But he sure doesn't look like a 52% career free throw shooter - he looks much, much worse than that so far as a Clipper.
- The non-call on Blake's dunk attempt in the fourth quarter was a complete head scratcher. If there's arm to arm contact between the shooter and the defender, and no block on the ball, then I don't really see any possibility other than a foul of some sort. I mean, you could call an offensive foul on Blake for clearing out in that situation and I would be OK with it, but nothing? How is that justifiable?
- I'm not clear on exactly why Spoelstra freaked out at the end. It seems as if they were trying to give a foul and he thought the refs should have called it. But (a) I watched the replay a bunch, and there certainly weren't any blatant fouls and (b) why the histrionics? It's not as if you were going to win that game anyway Eric. So they call a foul and put Chauncey Billups or Chris Paul on the line in that situation. It's still game over.
- It's nice that the Clippers can beat a good team in a game where they didn't shoot well. LA shot less than 42% as a team, and much of that was just them not shooting great. Miami played very good defense - aggressively double teaming when they got the chance and recovery to shooters with their length and quickness. The Clippers didn't win that game because they got red hot - they had to grind it out, particularly on defense. Billups in particular struggled, missing 9 of 11 shots.