Well that one hurt. The Los Angeles Clippers trailed the Portland Trail Blazers from the end of the first quarter until midway through the fourth, but withstood some hot three point shooting by the Blazers and put themselves in position to get a quality win on the road playing without Chris Paul. Overcoming a deficit that grew as high as 14 in the second quarter and 13 in the third quarter the Clippers used a 15-2 run to take a nine point lead with 2:38 remaining in the game. Not to mention that the lead was 100-91, guaranteeing that they would win the game provided that Lawler's Law would not be violated.
Unfortunately the Blazers scored the final 10 points of the game to steal back the game that the Clippers had stolen. What had only seconds before looked like a gritty performance to steal a tough win in a hostile venue had turned into an ugly collapse in the final two minutes.
The first five points of the 10-0 run were innocuous enough. Damian Lillard hit a long three to cut the lead to six and then LaMarcus Aldridge found J.J. Hickson alone under the basket for a dunk. But at least the Clippers had forced the Blazers to use clock on those two possessions. The next five points were a complete disaster. After he missed a three point attempt, Jamal Crawford gambled for a steal on the outlet pass allowing Wesley Matthews a lane to the basket, and Matt Barnes fouled him for good measure, resulting in a three point play in five seconds of clock with just over a minute remaining. With the Clippers still holding a one point lead, Lamar Odom missed an open jump shot and Blake Griffin committed a loose ball foul on the rebound -- giving the Blazers two free throws and the lead without any time coming off the clock. Those five points, which wound up being the final five points of the game, came on a layup and three free throws and took a total of five seconds. Given that the Clippers defense had stymied Portland in the fourth quarter, had they simply given themselves a chance to play defense on those two possessions they probably still would have won the game.
But the Clippers problems in the final minutes came on both ends of the floor, not just the defensive mistakes that resulted in the final five points. As is so often the case, once the game got down around two minutes remaining, the Clippers seemed to become much more concerned with running clock than with running an offense. To be fair, without Chris Paul the offense mostly consisted of Crawford running high screen and roll with Griffin, but it had been working, with Crawford scoring 19 and Griffin putting up 24 along with 10 assists mostly from catching the ball near the foul line from that pick and roll. But suddenly they were running it with the shot clock running down and fewer options because of the short clock. The Clippers final three possessions while they still had the lead produced:
- A Griffin fallaway jump shot at the shot clock buzzer;
- A Crawford three pointer with three on the clock;
- An Odom 18 footer at the shot clock buzzer.
It's an obvious and convenient excuse to say that this would not have happened with a healthy Chris Paul on the court, and that's probably true. However, the tendency to nurse a lead, rather than to play the way that allowed you to acquire that lead in the first place, is something we've seen with Paul on the floor as well (the last game against the Lakers where the Clippers hung on for the win but made it far too close being a prime example).
The other negative recurring theme for the Clippers is their three point defense. Or perhaps it's better to simply say the three point shooting of their opponent. This was the eighth time this season that a Clipper opponent has made 11 or more three pointers while making at least 40% of them -- the Clippers are 0-8 in those games, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that they are 32-5 in all their other games.
It's tempting to say that the Clippers perimeter defense is shoddy, but there are a few facts that belie that conclusion. For one thing, this is still the fifth best defense in the NBA, seventh best in effective field goal percentage allowed. Defense is a holistic challenge, and gambling for a few more steals or helping in the lane more may indeed result in more open three pointers, but you can't have everything, and the team's overall defensive numbers speak for themselves. So while the Clippers may be 20th in three point percentage defense, that number is out of context if you don't also consider the bigger defensive picture, which remains very solid. For another, with very few exceptions, there were not a lot of wide open threes for the Blazers tonight. They made threes with hands in their faces, they made threes late in shot clocks, they made threes from three steps behind the arc, they made threes coming off screens running away from the basket. It was great three point shooting (44%) from a team that has been pretty mediocre from beyond the arc (less than 34%) this season. It happens.
In the end it amounts to easily the most painful loss of the season. A game they appeared to be losing, where they took full control in the final quarter, and then fell apart in the end. No, it probably wouldn't have happened with a healthy Chris Paul. Yes, obviously they need him back. And with Memphis now just a game back of the Clippers in the loss column (2.5 overall) they need him back soon or they'll be in a very different playoff race than they one they were in last week.