The Los Angeles Clippers had dispatched the Washington Wizards so easily when the two teams met back east 11 days ago that there was a tendency to feel uneasy tonight as the game wore on. The Wizards hung around and hung around, actually taking the lead periodically in the second and third quarters. But even when the Wizards were close, it felt like the Clippers were still in control. The Clippers were dominating the boards, and were getting plenty of good shots, some of which just weren't falling. Meanwhile, there was something that seemed flukey about Washington's runs to that point. John Wall was constantly walking a tight rope between a turnover and an assist, a charge and a block. It was generating points, but it couldn't last, could it?
Now, that's a dangerous way to play. You don't want to let a young team like Washington hang around. Nick Young and Jordan Crawford are streaky shooters, and that team would certainly have a puncher's chance to hit enough threes to steal a win if they were close in the fourth. You have to put them away at some point.
Sure enough, with the game tied at 66 with a little more than three minutes left in the third quarter, the Clippers asserted their will on the game. They finished the quarter on an 8-0 run, and bookended it with another 8-0 run in the fourth quarter to ice the game. Over the course of about 12 minutes of game time, the Clippers outscored the Wizards 32-14. It was a blow out all right -- it just happened late instead of early, that's all.
It certainly wasn't the Clippers best effort, but fortunately this team can get by without their best effort against a lot of teams. No single Clipper stood out as particularly dominant, but something arguably more promising for the prospects of the team happened -- the Clippers got significant contributions from a whole cast of characters.
Blake Griffin finished with with 23 points and 15 rebounds, leading the team in both categories. Chris Paul had a relatively quiet 16 points and 9 assists. Caron Butler was his usual consistent self, carrying the team early and finishing with 21 points on just 11 shots, making 5 threes.
But Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin were key off the bench as well. Neither player necessarily put up huge numbers (though Reggie's 6 rebounds in just 14 minutes were noteworthy), but they played great defense, moved the ball on offense, and just generally played with an energy that the Clippers needed. LA has gone from a very thin bench at the start of the season to the point where I'm tempted to characterize the team as deep. If Eric Bledsoe can get to the point where he contributes (or alternatively if they can add one more productive player, or counterfactually if we could undo the Chauncey Billups injury) this team would have a very good second unit. As it is, if Vinny Del Negro can work out his rotations, the bench should not be killing the Clippers the way it did earlier in the season.
Working out his rotations, however, would not include playing Bledsoe at the small forward against a lineup where he has to defend Rashard Lewis. The Wizards actually play their own three guard lineup frequently, with Wall and Young and Crawford on the floor together, so VDN would get a chance to use three guards of his own at some point. Why he felt compelled to play three guards around 6'0" each (that is not just three guards, three very small guards) for two full minutes at the start of the second quarter while Washington was big -- only to then replace Bledsoe with Foye and go another three minutes with a guard defending the 6'10" Lewis -- is beyond me. The Clippers had every advantage over the Wizards in this game -- why go with experimental lineups that create disadvantages?
One player who made a contribution tonight was Randy Foye. Against Dallas on Monday, Foye was 0 for 7, and the lack of production from that spot clearly hurt the Clippers in that close loss. Tonight, he was 0 for 4 through three quarters, once against being almost completely invisible in the game to that point. But during the decisive fourth quarter, Foye scored 10 points in a three minute span, nailing two threes and four free throws. In the absence of Billups, until and unless the Clippers sign someone else, Foye must produce. The difference between the Wizards hanging around for three quarters, and the Clippers pulling away, was more or less a productive Randy Foye.
Foye, Martin, Evans, Mo Williams, Bledsoe, Ryan Gomes -- with 20 games in 31 days in March, the Clippers will need contributions from all of those guys. This compressed season is about winning games -- but it's also about making it to the playoffs relatively healthy and relatively fresh. Griffin played 34 minutes tonight, Paul 33 -- both about three minutes below their season average. There will be nights when they have to play 40+ minutes for the Clippers to win, but if the bench can play well enough so that those nights are relatively few, it will make a huge difference come playoff time.
The Clippers move to 18-9 on the season, with games against two Western Conference playoff teams looming next. If they can win in Portland tomorrow night against a Portland team likely playing without injured star LaMarcus Aldridge, it will set up a showdown with the red-hot Spurs with second place in the conference on the line. With only a few games left before the All Star break, and an incredibly busy March ahead, it's a very good time to find a deeper team.