So far this season, the Los Angeles Clippers have had an available excuse for almost every loss. Not that they've made excuses mind you, but Clipper apologists like myself would willingly make excuses for them. Losses to San Antonio and Chicago in games 2 and 3 came against good teams before the newly formed Clippers had had a chance to jell. Two losses came while Chris Paul was out of the lineup with a strained hamstring, and a third came in his first game back in which he shot 2 for 8. The most recent loss at home against Denver was 'schedule' loss, as the Clippers slogged through their fourth game in five nights.
Wednesday night's 99-92 loss in Cleveland? There's really no excuse for it.
Sure, it's the first game the Clippers have played since Chauncey Billups was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. But Cleveland was missing several key players themselves, most notably Rookie of the Year frontrunner Kyrie Irving, a last minute scratch because of concussion-like symptoms.
Irving's replacement in the starting lineup, Ramon Sessions, turned out to be a difference maker in the game. Sessions scored 24 points and dished out 13 assists, both season highs. His pick and roll execution made the Clippers look like the Clippers like to make other defenses look -- lost.
Meanwhile, Chauncey Billups' replacement in the starting lineup, Randy Foye, did fine, with 15 points on 5 of 11 shooting and three three pointers (the Clippers' only threes of the game). It was the other members of the LA backcourt who were supposed to inherit some of Chauncey's offensive chances that came up short. Paul and Mo Williams, two of the most efficient backcourt scorers in the league so far this season, combined to make just 10 of 26 shots, missing all five of their three point attempts. The game was tied at 87 with 90 seconds left -- even a decent shooting night from either Paul or Williams would likely have been enough to put the Clippers over the top.
The Clippers led early, building a lead as high as nine in the first quarter, but even then something felt off. The team committed six first quarter turnovers. They missed easy shots. On a two on one fast break, Blake Griffin passed the ball to a wide open Caron Butler, who fumbled it out of bounds. At the time, it all seemed irrelevant -- like the Wizards game Saturday, they probably wouldn't need to be their sharpest to get a win. But it soon became all too relevant.
The Clippers have struggled all season whenever Paul and Griffin have gone to the bench at the same time. In this game, Vinny Del Negro started the second quarter with a lineup consisting of Williams, Foye, Ryan Gomes, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, getting his first minutes as a Clipper -- Foye would be the only starter in that group, and he's only a starter because Billups is hurt. Why VDN even tried that lineup is one question -- why he stuck with it for over six minutes is another. Cleveland erased all of the Clippers' earlier advantage, and more importantly, gained confidence in the process. The game was tied at 40 at the break.
Why Cleveland was able to start the second half on a 17-4 run, against the Clippers first team, is another matter altogether. The Clippers began the half with no aggressiveness on offense, and also, they just missed shots. They made just one of their first eight shots. By the time they woke up, they were down 15. To their credit, the fought back and eventually got back to even and had every chance to win the game down the stretch, but sometimes you spend so much time climbing out of the hole that you slip and fall back in once you're out.
The sequence that really killed the Clippers came in about a 45 second stretch in the final two minutes. For the first time in the second half the Clippers had the ball in a tie game, with a chance to take the lead. With the shot clock winding down, Paul found Butler in the corner for an open three, the kind he's been knocking down all year -- he left it short. As the Cavs brought the ball up court, Williams turned his head for a second and lost track of Daniel Gibson, a career 42% three point shooter. Gibson ran straight to the three point line and got a friendly bounce on the three pointer that gave the Cavs the lead for good. On the Clippers next possession, Paul found Williams on a baseline cut for a layup, which he overshot and then knocked the rebound out of bounds. Sessions made two free throws, and suddenly it was a five point lead with under a minute to play. In two possessions, the Clippers got two great shots, and zero points, while making one huge defensive error on the other end. Ball game.
There may be some good news in this very bad loss. For one thing, Kenyon Martin looked surprisingly good in his first NBA action in over nine months. He was active and still has a surprising amount of the athleticism that has always been part of his game, getting two follow dunks and two blocked shots. For another, the Clippers will certainly not be complacent heading into Friday's game in Philadelphia after this debacle. The team was bound to stumble and fall at some point on the road trip -- if they can regroup and beat the Sixers with some additional focus, then it's a lesson learned. If they lose to the Sixers, a very good team after all, then it's a lost opportunity. The Clippers have not lost two straight
all season in 2012 -- that record will certainly be tested on Friday.
One last observation -- Anderson Varejao is kind of amazing. I mean, he is very effective on the court, he plays terrific defense, hustles after rebounds, and works his way into scoring chances. But it's amazing to me how frequently he is in the middle of big plays. Varejao drew nine fouls from the Clippers tonight -- four of them offensive, and three of those pretty crucial. And none of the offensive fouls he drew were of the charge/block variety. He just seems to annoy people into fouling him.
Late in the third quarter, with the Clippers mounting a comeback, Evans went around Varejao and in for a dunk. But Reggie's arm had swung up behind him as he went by and apparently caught Varejao in the face; at any rate, the Brazillian convinced the ref that it did, and an offensive foul was called, no basket.
With seven minutes to go, the Clippers had the ball down one, with a chance to take the lead for the first time in the second half. Varejao was defending Williams on a switch, and as Mo went by him, the whistle blew -- offensive foul on Williams for using his arm to get past.
Finally, in the most bizarre call, with seven seconds left, the Cavs up five and the game already decided, Varejao and Griffin were running up court when Varejao veered slightly into Blake's path. Whistle, foul on Griffin. What?
That mystery foul was a fitting ending to this game. It's hard to figure out what happened.