When you consider yourself a contender as the Los Angeles Clippers now do, you no longer have the luxury of anything like a moral victory. There are only wins and losses, and Wednesday night in Oklahoma City goes down as a loss. But in the big picture, it's a loss that says almost as much about the Clippers new found contender status as a win might.
Because the Clippers almost won this game despite the fact that Chris Paul had one of the worst shooting nights of his entire career. Through regulation, which finished with the teams tied at 102 after a furious comeback by the Clippers, it was the worst shooting night of his career -- at least among games where he had at least 10 field goal attempts. When Paul missed the jump shot that would have won the game at the regulation buzzer, it left him 1-12; he managed to make a concession layup in overtime after the game was out of reach to avoid shooting under 10 percent in the game.
In addition to Paul's struggles, the Clippers played this game without starting small forward Caron Butler, and that on top of the absences they've had all season, starting shooting guard Chauncey Billups and backup small forward Grant Hill.
So at the end of the game, yes, it's a loss. But it's also a situation where the team has gone into the arena of the defending Western Conference champs shorthanded, gotten a historically poor shooting night from their best player, and still had a chance to win. So you can bet that the Clippers will have all the confidence in the world the next time they see the Thunder. Mark down the loss and move on. The Clippers are in the race for the long haul.
The Clippers had trouble finding any rhythm in the game. They were playing from behind from early in the first quarter, and it seemed that every time they made a run, a fluke play of some sort would interrupt their momentum. For instance, how many times did the Clippers get a steal that seemed to be leading to a fast break, only to give the ball right back? I can think of at least three separate occasions (though on the last one, DeAndre Jordan stole the ball back AGAIN and the Clippers finally got the points they needed). Ibaka banks in a three at the halftime buzzer, Durant gets sent to the line on a play where the Clippers should have had the steal and he barely had control of the ball yet the refs deemed him to be shooting, Nick Collison tips in a shot with a blind slap, Hasheem Thabeet does anything positive for OKC -- all flukey plays, and in each case, the Clippers were mounting a comeback that had to run a little bit longer, work a little bit harder.
Still, there was a lot to like from the Clippers in this game. For one thing, they never really got discouraged despite all the setbacks along the way; they just kept plugging away. They'd get within one possession, and then give up six straight. Get close again, and then miss a layup and give one up going the other way. It would have been really easy to pack it in and start thinking about New Jersey. But they refused to give up and closed regulation on an 11-4 run over the final 2:50 and had that chance to win at the buzzer.
For the second game in a row, Matt Barnes was the Clippers player of the game. With Butler and Hill out, Barnes was the only small forward in uniform for the Clippers. He played 44 minutes, defending against Kevin Durant every last one of them. He held Durant 7-19 shooting (though Durant did get to the free throw line 21 times with some help from the refs). As if that were not enough, he also scored seven of the Clippers final nine points in regulation including the layup that tied the game for the first time all night. He finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 4 steals while defending the best scorer in the NBA -- not bad for an afterthought free agent.
Lamar Odom was also a bright spot for the Clippers. Not that he was spectacular, but he played 17 key minutes, grabbing a season high eight rebounds. He was also active on defense and generally looked much better on the court. He still doesn't have his timing all the way back and he can't hit a jumper to save his life right now, but the progress is obvious. He's working his way back.
DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin combined to make 8-10 free throws during the fourth quarter comeback. The significance of this cannot be overstated. With the pressure on in the fourth quarter (and in the case of Jordan facing the additional pressure of having been fouled intentionally), for those guys to step up and hit their free throws is huge. After missing his first eight foul shots this season, Jordan has made 15 of his last 24. That's .625, and that's a huge step in the right direction.
And perhaps most amazingly of all, the Clippers went to Jordan on a crucial fourth quarter possession -- and Jordan responded with an absolutely text book up and under on Ibaka for a three point play that cut the lead to one. When was the last time the Clippers even GAVE the ball to Jordan in a fourth quarter or overtime? The idea that he would have the ball and actually do something positive with it is hard to fathom in the context of his first four seasons in the league.
There were plenty of other positives for the Clippers. Bledsoe continues to shine, and Crawford made his usual array of amazing shots despite some intense defensive pressure. And the defense was terrific -- coaches chart deflections in every game, and I guarantee you the Clippers were off the charts in this one, but unfortunately a lot of those deflections seemed to take strange bounces away from Clipper control. In the end, it's still a loss -- but we weren't really expecting the team to win their final 68 in a row, were we? The Thunder are a very good team, and Durant and Westbrook, despite struggling from the field throughout the game, hit some huge shots in overtime, which is what great players do.
But if you're going to lose, doing so while at the same time proving that you are perfectly capable of beating the conference champs on their floor is a good way to do it.
Be sure to get the Thunder perspective on their win over at Welcome to Loud City.
|Final - 11.21.2012||1||2||3||4||OT 1||Total|
|Los Angeles Clippers||22||27||20||33||9||111|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||28||31||17||26||15||117|