I did not expect the Los Angeles Clippers to have a chance to win this game. Playing the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that has had their number all season, in their fourth game in five nights, on the road, after an overtime game Sunday night in which the starters all played big minutes, I didn't think the Clippers would have the energy to compete. And in many ways, it might have been easier if they had simply been blown out. They could have rested the starters, they could have written it off as the guilt-free "schedule loss", and the outcome would have been the same. Because in the end, even though the Clippers competed and could easily have won this game, they lost 95-94.
Trailing by as many as 15 in the first half, and by 11 with nine minutes remaining in the game, the Clippers battled back right to the brink of a tie. Trailing by five and needing the ball with 40 seconds left, the Clippers got a steal and two Chris Paul free throws to make it a one possession game with 29 seconds left -- enough time to play for a stop and get the ball back for one last shot. Which is exactly what happened. The got the stop they needed, called time out with 5 seconds on the clock, and got a clean look at a three for Paul for the tie -- and Derrick Williams fouled Paul! The shot nearly went in, which would have given Paul a chance to win the game at the line, but instead he got three free throws to try to tie it. He made the first and made the second, giving him four straight in the final 30 seconds to cut a five point lead down to one. But he missed the big one, the one to force overtime. Game over.
On a macro level, it's not difficult to see where the Clippers lost this game. LA generated four more field goal attempts and five more free throws attempts, while shooting slightly better than the Wolves from the field (40.5% to 40%). But Minnesota made 11 of 28 three pointers compared a dismal 5 for 23 for the Clippers, and LA also missed 11 free throws (7 by Blake Griffin). On a micro level, there are probably 30 or so plays you could point to where the Clippers missed an opportunity or made a big mistake, and any one of them could have been the difference in the game.
Throughout the fourth quarter, the gentlemanly Timberwolves were holding the door open for the Clippers -- and the Clippers stubbornly refused to walk through. When you're trying to come from behind late in a game, the two things you can ill afford to do are to leave points on the table, or to give your opponent extra chances. Yet that's precisely what the Clippers did, time and again. Consider:
-> Between two Chris Paul free throws, for no apparent reason, Kenyon Martin said something to a referee that earned him a technical foul. One point for Minnesota.
-> After a steal, Paul was one on one with Rubio in a situation where he would surely either be fouled or score. Instead, he decided to pass back to a trailing Griffin, who had basically no advantage on a hustling Luke Ridnour trying to stop the play. Ridnour, as Paul must surely have known he would, took a foul on Griffin to force him to earn the points at the line -- and Griffin pulled Ridnour to the ground in the melee, earning yet another technical foul. Ridnour made the technical foul shot, Griffin missed both of his, and what should have been a sure two points for the Clippers instead became a point for the Wolves, putting them back up six instead of just three with just over two minutes left.
-> Six of the Wolves 14 offensive rebounds came in the fourth quarter -- including one by Rubio in the final minute with Minnesota clinging to a three point lead. The extra possession led to a Kevin Love basket to build the lead back to five.
-> Griffin missed his final four free throws of the game.
In the final 4:05 alone, with the Clippers down just four, LA gave up two offensive rebounds for four second chance points, gave up two points on technical fouls, and missed five free throws. It may not be realistic to expect a team to play error-free basketball, but these were all plays they are supposed to make. It's not really hyperbole to say that the Clippers could have won this game by 10 points had they simply executed in the final four minutes. The shame is that it all wasted a terrific fourth quarter defensive effort from the team. Six of the Wolves' final ten points came on technical fouls and missed box outs -- the defense shut them down otherwise.
Conversely, Minnesota made mistake after mistake to give the Clippers these chances. They fouled three point shooters twice in the final two minutes. They gave Paul a wide open three that he missed in the final minute. They turned the ball over on half of their final six possessions. They shot just 33% in the quarter. They seemed determined to lose the game. The Clippers just weren't able to win it.
Kevin Love, who had struggled against the Clippers in the first two meetings, was a beast in this one. He scored 39 points, making 13 of 25 shots and 5 of 10 three pointers, and grabbed 17 rebounds. In the first quarter, after the Clippers had jumped to an 8-2 lead, he personally ran off 11 straight, making three threes and a layup in 90 seconds. The Clippers were climbing out of the hole the rest of the night.
For the Clippers, Griffin finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds, and Paul had 18, but the other starters struggled, with just 9 points between them. Caron Butler was particularly bad, going scoreless in 19 minutes, missing 6 shots and not really coming close on any of them. Mo Williams scored 19 off the bench, as the Clippers reserves outscored Minnesota's 41-24 after being embarrassed last week.
The Clippers have now lost three straight to Minnesota, with one last chance in April to avoid the season sweep. In this one, it was mistakes and missed opportunities that did them in.