This was kind of a key play.
The loss Saturday to the Spurs was painful for obvious reasons. The Clippers had the game won and allowed the Spurs to tie on one of the strangest turnovers you'll ever see. But there was some solace in knowing that the team had played well enough to win against a very good team.
Monday night in Oakland against the Warriors was a different kind of loss. A two point lead and the ball in the final three minutes certainly isn't the same thing as a three point lead and the ball in the final ten seconds, but neither are the Warriors the Spurs. The Clippers were the team with the 4-2 record in games decided by three points or less -- the Warriors were 1-6 in tight contests. With the two best players on the court, including the guy who had come through in the fourth quarter on countless occasions before, it seemed obvious that the Clippers would be the team that would execute effectively down the stretch and win the game.
Instead, the Warriors went on a 9-0 run to win the game. That run was decisive enough to take the game right out of the "close" category, so at least the Clippers record there stays in tact. The Clippers were scoreless over the final 3:15 of the game, and execution was the culprit. Let's look at those possessions.
- Blake Griffin re-entered the game at the 2:48 mark with the Clippers in possession. This is significant in that Blake's minutes had been limited by foul trouble the entire game, but Golden State had no answer for him defensively when he was in.
- On the possession, the Clipper ran a flare cut screen to get Mo Williams a three pointer. It's hard to argue with this one. Williams was 6 for 6 from deep at the time, they executed the play well and Mo got a good look. He just missed it.
- On defense, they made a huge mistake when the forced David Lee into a miss, but the rebound bounced off of three different Clippers before landing in Ekpe Udoh's hands. No one really to blame -- just one of those plays. A few seconds later Steph Curry found Brandon Rush for a wide open three and suddenly the Warriors had the lead.
- Now down one, the Clippers tried to post up Blake Griffin. Udoh did a good job of denying the entry pass, and Griffin received the ball much further away from the basket than he wanted. The possession went nowhere and Griffin had to kick the ball out to Paul, who had to force up a jumper with a short clock. Miss.
- On the other end, Monta Ellis went one-on-one against Paul and made a beautiful move to the basket to put the Warriors up three with 83 seconds left. Griffin appeared unwilling to rotate and risk a sixth foul, and with DeAndre Jordan on the bench, there was no one else to protect the rim.
- On the next Clippers' possession they tried to return the favor and went iso with Paul on Ellis. Again, not a bad strategy -- let your best clutch player create something for himself or one of his teammates. It seemed to work too, as Paul got Ellis retreating -- when Ellis slipped, Paul had plenty of room to shoot, but for some reason he didn't. Seconds later, he got Ellis to bite on a pump fake, but rather than jump into him and draw a shooting foul, he once again held onto the ball. They reset, ran a quick pick and roll with Griffin and got the switch so that Dominic McGuire was on Paul. CP3 figured he could take McGuire, and tried to create space and shoot over him, but the 6'7" McGuire got a piece of the shot.
- This was really the key possession. Down three with plenty of time to play defense and get the ball back, a bucket here and it's still a game. An empty trip though and you're in big touble. The play call, a Paul iso, isn't bad, but one wonders why not give Griffin a touch there? Griffin was 7 for 10 in the game and had also drawn five shooting fouls in the game. Sure, the last play had gone to Griffin and he hadn't delivered. However, Udoh had left the game at the prior stoppage after hitting the floor battling for rebound position, and McGuire, essentially a small forward, was defending Griffin. Whether the Clippers recognized it or not is debatable -- but Griffin had a huge advantage in the post. Even so, Paul had a couple of different opportunities that he didn't take.
- The Warriors rebounded the blocked shot and took their time bringing the ball upcourt. Curry realized just in time that the 8 second count was getting close, and sprinted the last few steps into the corner in the front court, where he was trapped by Paul and Williams. The ball seemed to be loose for a moment, but in the melee Paul fouled Curry and the 90% career foul shooter made two -- five point lead, 54 seconds left.
- A quick aside on the 8 second rule. This was not an 8 second violation. Until this season, NBA referees were instructed to call an 8 second violation when the 24 second clock displayed 16 -- makes sense, right, 24 - 16 = 8. But this season it becomes a violation at 15. Why the difference? Is it now a 9 second rule? It's still 8 seconds, but the NBA changed the way the shot clock functions this season when they added tenths of seconds to the display. Last season, the clocked showed 0 when the full 24 seconds were expired. This season, it shows 0.9 seconds when there are still nine tenths of a second left. Similarly, when the clock displays 16, there are really 16.9 seconds on the clock. So it has to show 15 for a full 8 seconds to have elapsed -- 8.1 seconds, if you want to nitpick. So this season, I guess it's an 8.1 second count, and Curry made it with a few tenths to spare.
- On the Clippers penultimate possession, Mo Williams missed a three, but Griffin managed to chase down the offensive rebound -- and then threw the ball at Foye's feet and out of bounds for a turnover.
- The final possession, down seven with 19 seconds left, was laughably bad. The Clippers inbounded the ball to Griffin, and then all five players stood and stared for the next few seconds, as if no one had any idea what to do next. If a play had been diagrammed during the timeout, all of them had forgotten it by the time they inbounded the ball.
The game was lost in those final three minutes. Five Clipper possessions, zero points, six missed shots, one turnover, one missed offensive rebound that amounted to a turnover. The team that executes best at the end of a game will invariably win, and if you get out-executed by the Warriors, it's not a good day.
Clearly the Clippers were not helped any by the officiating in the game -- but they still win if they simply execute down the stretch. Nonetheless, the sequence at the end of the first half was truly bizarre. Paul knew that Jackson was calling for an intentional foul on DeAndre Jordan and went into his shooting motion when the foul was being committed, sinking a half court three pointer. The officials said that the shot didn't count -- but I'm not sure there's any defensible reason that it shouldn't have. If Paul is in his motion before the whistle, which he was, then the shot should count -- that's the rule as far as I understand it. If you're wondering why the referees did not review the play, well this situation (foul off the ball simultaneous to a shot) is not among the 11 reviewable situations the NBA has enumerated, so it wasn't an option.
But the next call was far more damaging. With the ball and a couple seconds difference between the shot clock and the game clock, Paul once again saw Brandon Rush approaching Jordan and launched a 35 footer as Rush pushed Jordan with both hands -- and there was no whistle. This time Paul missed, the Warriors rebounded and scored. The 5-1 mini-run, made possible by a couple of strange officiating decisions, tied the game at halftime and gave the Warriors all the momentum.
There is no reasonable explanation for why the second foul would not have been called. With three referees on the court and the foul taking place in play sight, it's not reasonable that none of them saw it -- particularly given that the Warriors had just intentionally fouled Jordan off the ball on the prior trip and were likely to do so again. The thought briefly occurred to me that the officials were trying to teach Paul some sort of lesson -- they didn't like him trying to manipulate the game, and that's why they didn't allow the first basket and essentially baited him into a low percentage shot on the non-foul -- but then I realized that would require a level of coordination and sophistication that the officiating crew wouldn't possess. It just happened, and I don't know why.
I do think it might help explain why Paul didn't shoot when he had Ellis in the air in the final minutes. Not only had this crew not given him the benefit of calls, they'd seemed to work against him, particularly when he got too clever. Paul's 'shoot during the intentional foul' strategy is like Sam Cassell's old 'fall down when the defender bumps you' trick -- if you get the call, it's great. But if you don't it's a turnover. Perhaps with Ellis in the air, he was thinking that this crew might leave their whistles silent, or worse still, call an offensive foul, if he allowed Ellis to come down on him as he was taking the shot. Probably 95% of the time with a defender in that situation, the offensive player will jump forward and shoot, and a shooting foul will be called. Maybe in Paul's mind the odds were a little different last night.
The calls against Griffin had a more direct impact on the game. Griffin had scored 21 points on 10 shots, and the Warriors clearly had to answer for him. But he was limited to 29 minutes because of foul trouble, and all of the last three were debatable calls. The fifth foul in particular, with Griffin simply running down court and Ellis veering over to initiate contact, was a huge call. It's not an uncommon call, but that doesn't make it easy to accept.
But the officials didn't lose this game. The Clippers were in position to win down the stretch, and simply didn't get it done. That's cause for concern. As is the fact that Chris Paul hasn't put an entire game together in over a week. The Clippers will go as far as Paul can take them -- if he continues to struggle for long stretches of games, the Clippers will continue to struggle as well.