First for the good news -- a phenomenal layup with 5 seconds left by Chris Paul gave the Los Angeles Clippers a last second victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, 98-97. That makes the Clippers 4-0 on the current home stand, the four game winning streak tying their longest of the season. The win pulls the Clippers to within a game of the Lakers for third place in the Western Conference, first place in the Pacific Division.
Now for the bad news -- almost everything else about this game.
The Clippers have a nasty habit of losing focus when they feel like the opponent is easily beatable. It happened in Cleveland when Kyrie Irving was a last minute scratch and the Clippers lost to the Cavaliers. It happened when Steve Nash AND Grant Hill rested during a game that the Clippers lost at home to the Suns. It happened back in February in Portland when LaMarcus Aldridge sat out for the Blazers, and only some fourth quarter heroics by Chris Paul salvaged the victory. And it happened again tonight as Aldridge missed his second straight meeting with the Clippers.
The fourth quarter was a huge issue, which I'll get back to, but first I want to return to the third. The Clippers had opened the second half on a 10-4 run to build a 9 point lead and seemed poised to take control of the game. On the next Clippers' possession, Randy Foye had DeAndre Jordan all alone at the rim, and threw the lob a little too high -- instead of making sure to get the ball, Jordan tried to catch and dunk anyway, resulting in a turnover. A couple possessions after that, Paul threw another lob to DeAndre -- it was a tough catch, running straight down the center of the court with the coming straight over his head, but once again DJ was dunking before he actually had the ball, resulting in another turnover. Both of those plays should have resulted in two points, which would have built the lead to double digits. Instead it was two turnovers, Portland went on a 9-2 run, and the game was close the rest of the way.
But while the tendency to take opponents lightly and the possibly related lapses of focus are annoying, those aren't the real problems. After all, if the goal is the playoffs, it's not as if the Clippers would be likely to take a playoff opponent lightly. But this game exposed to Clippers problems that are much more pernicious: terrible defense, and a terrible bench.
Thirty seconds into the second quarter, the Clippers owned a five point lead. At that point coach Vinny Del Negro gave Paul his first rest of the game, and the five Clippers on the floor were Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Bobby Simmons, Nick Young and Eric Bledsoe. Mo Williams is currently out with a strained big toe, and without Williams, a bench unit that always had difficulty scoring, can now not score at all. Look at that lineup? Where are the points coming from? The Blazers proceeded to score 15 consecutive points over the next 5 minutes to take a 10 point lead. As the starters began to return, the Clippers closed the half on a 21-8 run to regain the lead, based largely on the hot shooting of Randy Foye. But the second unit had done a lot of damage. For the game, the five Clipper starters all had plus/minus scores in positive territory -- and the reserves were all negative, four of them by double digits. Eric Bledsoe was -10 in 9 minutes. Reggie Evans was -12 in 4 minutes. Yikes.
Poor bench play is another problem that should be less pronounced in the playoffs. During the regular season, the goal is to keep players fresh and survive. Once the playoffs arrive, rotations will shorten considerably. The Clippers will focus in on seven or eight players who will get the vast majority of the minutes, and Chris Paul will be on the floor a lot more often.
Poor defense will not go away in the playoffs, unless something drastic happens. The Clippers scored more or less at will against Portland in this game when it counted -- unfortunately, they were almost completely incapable of getting stops. You know it's bad when Mike Smith, not a notorious critic of the team, describes the defense as 'awful'. In the game's final six minutes, the Blazers scored 17 points on 11 possessions. They scored on 8 of the 11, and one of the ones on which they didn't score, J.J. Hickson missed a pair of free throws. When L.A. finally did force a miss, up one with 30 seconds left, they gave up an offensive rebound and Portland got another chance to take the lead, which they did on a Jamal Crawford jumper. The simple fact is, Chris Paul would not have had to be nearly so heroic had the Clippers figured out how to defend a Raymond Felton/J.J. Hickson pick and roll. That's Raymond Felton who has been terrible for the Blazers this season, and J.J. Hickson, who was waived by the 14th-in-the-West Kings a couple weeks ago. That's Raymond Felton and J.J. Hickson who were playing their fifth game together.
OK, deep breath.
It's a long season, and there are going to be ebbs and flows. Some nights the team is going to struggle with their energy and with their focus. Maybe they got this one out of their system and they'll be on their best behavior for a few games now. If so, then getting the win is huge -- it's nice to have a terrible game and get away with it.
But even though the Clippers remain in fourth place, well-positioned to get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, it won't matter much if some of these issues remain. And first and foremost is the defense.