The Los Angeles Clippers lost a heartbreaker in Portland Saturday night, coming back from a 13 point third quarter deficit to take a nine point lead with under three minutes to play, only to surrender the final 10 points of the game and lose by one. With that memory fresh in their minds, they seemed to have a sense of purpose in their rematch with the Blazers, and although it took a while, they took control in the second half to cruise to a 96-83 victory.
Actually, the Clippers tried to put the game away in the first half. They were up 46-40 when Caron Butler hit a corner three, hit the floor and the whistle sounded. Everyone in the gym assumed Caron would be going to the line to try to finish a four point play and put the Clippers up 10. Instead, referee Matt Boland called an offensive foul on Butler for kicking his legs out. It was one of the more bizarre calls I've ever seen. For one thing, you see that type of offensive foul called perhaps three or four times in an entire season, and it has to be pretty blatant to be whistled. Replays showed that Butler ... well, basically did nothing. He jumped, he shot. His legs went a little forward, but that's kind of what you do when you shoot -- you jump forward.
Instead of L.A. being up 50-40, the Blazers scored six points on their next two possessions to tie the game, and then took the lead at 50-48. But after a see-saw first half, it would prove to be their last lead of the game.
To their credit, after calling timeout and getting the mystery leg kick out of their system, the Clippers, and more specifically Blake Griffin, put their imprint on the game from that moment. They closed the first half on seven straight points from Griffin to take a five point lead into the half. The opened the second half with five more in a row to take their first double digit lead. The Blazers never again got closer than seven points, and didn't get the lead below 10 for the final 17 minutes of basketball.
For the second night in a row, Griffin was a force on offense both scoring and distributing. After getting a points-assists double-double in Portland Saturday night he came back with 23 points and nine assists in this one, and he did it all in just 28 minutes while shooting 9-15 from the field. He simply outhustled the Blazer bigs for most of his points, time and again getting deep early post up position and then overpowering his defender as he went in for the score. But it's his passing that has been revelatory in recent games. After tying his career high with 10 assists Saturday night, he should have had 11 tonight -- Butler's disallowed four point play came off a Griffin pass, and Lamar Odom fumbled a Griffin pass that should have been a dunk. It's strange that he's suddenly missing triple-doubles because he doesn't get enough rebounds.
Aside from that miscue on the Griffin pass, Odom was almost as good as his younger teammate and likewise made his presence felt all over the stat sheet. He was the game's leading rebounder with 13 boards, and he also contributed eight points and six assists. In the absence of Chris Paul, who leads the team and is second in the league in assists, the Clippers as a team nonetheless managed to hand out 33 assists, tying their season-high. When a pair of 6'10" power forwards lead the team with 15 assists between them, you know that everyone is sharing the ball.
The win puts an end to the Clippers four game losing streak, and puts a little more space between the Clippers and the Grizzlies, who lost to New Orleans Sunday. With a season-long eight game road trip looming and Chris Paul still nursing a sore knee cap with no time table for his return, the Clippers would be wise to focus on getting to the All Star break without losing too much ground and not worry too much about making up ground on the Spurs and Thunder for now.
Until Paul returns, the Clippers need to play like they did tonight. Griffin needs to be a dominant force on offense, they need to play good defense (Portland shot under 44%), and they need role players like Odom and others to step up and contribute. It has to be a real team effort in support of Griffin. Eric Bledsoe was not particularly good tonight replacing Paul, and he will almost certainly struggle with his consistency as the starter. But the rest of the team can make up for an off-night from Bledsoe.
It doesn't completely erase the disappointment of a painful loss in Portland, but it's a very good win and a necessary response to that loss. Now it's time to bundle up and head out on the road for a couple of weeks. The trip begins with five straight games against teams with losing records. If they can take care of business in those games, hopefully they'll have Paul back for the end of the trip, and maybe the team can get on a roll again.
After all, the last time they lost four in a row, they responded with 17 straight wins.
For the Portland perspective visit Blazer's Edge.