One big reason that 17 game winning streaks are so unusual, even for good teams who have soft stretches in their schedule as the Clippers did in December, is that good teams lose games they shouldn't lose quite frequently in the NBA. Cases in point -- in their last 24 games, the Clippers have won 20 games. The four losses have come at Denver and at Golden State, both of which are understandable, and at home to the Hornets and today against the Magic. Those losses are not so understandable.
I feel a little too prescient about this loss. These afternoon games are always a little dicey, and I had a very bad feeling that the Clippers were vulnerable today. My misgivings seemed misplaced when the Clippers opened the game on a 12-2 run. But the method of their eventual downfall was apparent in the next Magic points when Jameer Nelson made a three pointer from several steps beyond the three point arc. One way to beat a superior team is to make a bunch of three pointers, and the Magic did: going 11-25 on the game.
If that first Nelson three-pointer was a bad portent, the final Magic three was what it foretold. The Clippers led almost the entire game -- but could never push the lead much beyond 10, Just as I had fretted in the preview, the Clippers allowed the Magic to hang around, and with the score tied at 99 and less than a minute remaining, J.J. Redick came off a screen, gave Matt Barnes an up fake, stepped around him and back behind the three point line and drained the go ahead three for Orlando's first lead of the game.
The Clippers lost the game in large part because they forgot what they were doing in the fourth quarter. As good as the second unit has been this season, they were not good today. They immediately gave away the lead in the second quarter today, and the Clippers immediately took it back when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin returned. The third quarter was more of a struggle than it should have been, but the team still took an eight point lead into the fourth quarter.
With Grant Hill in uniform for the first time this season, Vinny Del Negro decided to give him some minutes in the fourth. As usual he rested all five starters to begin the final period, but as we suspected he would, he used Hill in lieu of Ronny Turiaf. With a different quintet on the floor, the Tribe Called Bench seemed a bit out of sorts. Hill and Jamal Crawford combined to miss their first six shots of the fourth, and worse yet the team didn't seem to know where the shots should be coming from.
Still, Griffin and Paul were available to return to the game fresh, and surely order would be restored when they did. Paul rejoined the fray with 6:39 remaining and Griffin came back about a minute later. But although Griffin was in the midst of his best half of the season, going 7-8 in the third quarter, and though Paul is the designated closer for the team, in the fourth quarter today Griffin did not take a shot and Paul was just 1-2 -- his only make coming AFTER Redick's three pointer had put the team up against the wall.
In the final six minutes of basketball, with the game on the line, Lamar Odom took two shots, Matt Barnes took three, Crawford took three, Paul took two, and Griffin took zero. It's more than a little frustrating to lose a close game while the team's best players are more or less reduced to spectators.
Even after Redick's dagger, the Clippers still had a chance. Paul, finally looking to score, made a jumper in the lane with 33 seconds remaining, cutting the deficit to one and ensuring the Clippers would get another possession. Then they got the stop they needed and headed out in transition looking for the lead -- but Crawford was called for an offensive foul charging into Redick. Even then, with 12 seconds remaining, the Clippers had a strategy they could follow to try to get back in the game. When Orlando inbounded the ball to Redick, an 88 percent foul shooter on his career, the Clippers doubled him without fouling, wisely trying to force him to give up the ball. He did, to Josh McRoberts, below 70 percent on his career -- but no one was there to foul him. When Odom rushed to try to commit the foul he left Nikola Vucevic alone under the basket. McRoberts passed to Vucevic for the dunk and the Clippers were again down by three. A Crawford three pointer at the buzzer didn't fall, and the Clippers home winning streak was history and the Thunder suddenly owned the best record in the NBA.
The NBA season is long. It's not possible to be up for every game. We were beginning to think that the team had outgrown these sorts of lapses, but in fact every team has them, and the Clippers are no exception. In the big picture, if the team splits two games against the Magic and the Grizzlies, you'd prefer that the win come against Memphis if possible. In a perfect world, you'd rather win both games of course, but bad losses happen. The team will just have to work that much harder to make up for this loss with a good road win this coming week.
For the Magic perspective, visit Orlando Pinstriped Post.