When we looked at the final five games of the season, knowing that the Clippers would have to win three of them in order to maintain the fourth position in the playoffs, and assuming that the Memphis Grizzlies would win all of their remaining games, it was of course the four road games against playoff teams that looked problematic. Which two of those four teams could the Clippers beat?
The assumption was that of the remaining five games, there was one win that was a given. After all, there was only one home game and only one game against a team with a losing record -- and they happened to be the same game, tonight's meeting with the New Orleans Hornets.
Well, maybe it wasn't just Clips Nation that was overlooking the Hornets.
What's strange is that the Clippers started off strong. Usually if a team is going to have a let down in a trap game like this, it would be from the opening tip. Quite the opposite, the Clippers jumped out to a 16-6 lead on the strength of three three-pointers from Randy Foye and a couple of Blake Griffin dunks. The Clippers were never able to put the game away, but they did manage to maintain a lead throughout the first half. They led by five at the end of the first quarter, and were still up by five at the intermission. So the team more or less showed up for the first half.
What happened to them in the third quarter is anybody's guess. It should be noted that Caron Butler suffered a hip contusion on a first quarter fall, and Nick Young didn't suit up because of the flu, so the Clippers were without their top two small forwards in the second half, but you can't really blame the whole thing on Bobby Simmons. The Clippers as a team couldn't shoot in the third quarter, making just 6-19 shots. As it happens, Chris Paul made 4 of those field goals in 8 attempts, meaning that the rest of the team was 2-11.
But while 17 points scored was a problem in the quarter, a much bigger problem was the 32 points allowed. The Hornets made 14-19 field goals, with former Clipper Al-Farouq Aminu going 5-5 for 12 points himself. New Orleans was just 3-7 from the free throw line in the quarter, or the damage would have been even worse. As it was, the Clippers managed to turn a 5 point lead into a 10 point deficit by the start of the fourth.
A big part of the problem was that the Clippers went ice cold from deep. While Foye made those three threes early, the Clippers went through a team wide slump from beyond the arc after that. As a team the Clippers missed 17 straight three pointers from midway through the second quarter until late in the fourth.
And then they started falling again.
We've said seemingly without cessation that the Clippers are a very good team when they are making perimeter shots, and a very beatable team when they are not. This game was a microcosm of that simple observation. Similar to a plus/minus for players, if you were to calculate the plus/minus for the magic fairy that makes three point shots go in for the Clippers and the evil troll that makes them stay out, that magic fairy would get the game ball tonight, and the evil troll, well, he'd be an evil troll.
The Clippers began the fourth quarter with an energy lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Foye, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, and that group managed to shave a couple of points off the lead. But the Clippers were still down by 7 when Foye snapped that 0-17 string of three pointers with four and a half minutes remaining in the game. A few seconds later Foye hit another three pointer to cut the lead to a single point, and the Clippers owned all the momentum again.
Paul and Foye together were the closers for the team tonight. Paul finished with 33 points in the game and Foye had 24. They hit every big shot in the fourth quarter.
In the end it's a bullet dodged and the Clippers only need one more win to guarantee home court advantage in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they will probably not be able to pass the Lakers after their improbably come-from-behind victory over the Thunder earlier today. But home court advantage in the first round is still a great accomplishment for this team, which is also on track for the best record in franchise history.
The next time the Clippers play in STAPLES Center, it will be in the playoffs.