The Clippers led the Lakers from wire to wire in the second battle of L.A., leading by as many as 18 points in the first half and 19 points briefly in the fourth quarter before finally posting a five point win to go up 2-0 in the season series. But the Lakers definitely made it interesting, abetted by some way-too-conservative play from the Clippers down the stretch. In the end, although the Lakers managed to cut the lead down to two points at 99-97 with 89 seconds remaining, Chris Paul simply wasn't going to let the Clippers lose. He scored the Clippers' final eight points including crucial free throws with just over a minute to go and a step back jumper with 20 seconds left to preserve the victory.
In addition to leading the season series with the "other" Los Angeles team, the Clippers are now ten games ahead of the Lakers in the standings. If the season were to end today, the Clippers would have home court advantage through the NBA Finals and the Lakers would miss the playoffs completely as the 11th place team in the Western Conference.
The Clippers were of course supposed to win this game, as the team with the better record and playing at home, but it's worth bearing in mind a couple of things. The Clippers were playing without not only Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, who have still played only three games between them all season, but were also missing sixth man Jamal Crawford who sat out with a sore left foot. That's essentially the Clippers top three shooting guards on the training camp depth chart all missing.
Without Crawford, Paul had to carry much more of the scoring load than usual, which he did. He put up a season high 30 points and also handed out 13 assists. He was 11-25 from the field, establishing season highs in both field goal attempts and made field goals as well.
The Clippers additional depth this season has been well-documented and has allowed Paul to play fewer minutes per game than at any other time in his career. But we knew there would be games when the Clippers needed him to play more and do more, and this was one of them. His 41 minutes played was yet another season high in a regulation game.
Helping out Paul on offense was Blake Griffin, who broke out of a mini-slump with a big game. Griffin, who had made just 9-27 field goals in the last three games, made that many tonight in 16 attempts. Unfortunately, unlike Paul, Griffin was not able stay on the floor quite as long due to foul trouble (and don't get me started on that second foul call where Metta World Peace fouled him at least twice yet they called the foul on Griffin).
The absence of Crawford was felt sorely in the fourth quarter. An Eric Bledsoe runner followed by a Lamar Odom three gave the Clippers their biggest lead of the game a minute and a half into the final period. But the Lakers then went on a 12-1 run to get right back into the game, and the makeshift fivesome of Bledsoe, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, Odom and Ronny Turiaf. The Clippers' second unit thrives off defense and running, but in the second half they need Crawford to create shots for them. Without Crawford on the floor, they had no offense at all.
The Clippers brought Paul and Griffin back fairly quickly, but the team seemed more intent on running clock than with getting good shots. Every possession ran deep into the shot clock and ended with Paul forcing a difficult shot (there were also a couple of unfortunately miscommunications with DeAndre Jordan that ended in turnovers instead of dunks).
Blake Griffin managed to finish one tough move late in the shot clock and to draw a foul on another possession, but that was the extent of the Clippers offense over the final 10-plus minutes. Paul and Griffin hitting difficult shots late in the shot clock. It's less than ideal, but I can't be too critical of the team considering that Crawford and Billups are two likely options they could go to late in games, and neither of them was available tonight.
I have to use part of this time to rail against the hack-ahead strategy that I despise. I honestly cannot fathom why teams choose to foul when they have the lead, regardless of how bad the opposing foul shooter is. The Clippers intentionally fouled Dwight Howard on two of three Lakers' possessions prior to the two minute threshold, and Howard responded by missing the first two and then making the next two. Those two makes cut the Clippers lead down to four, the closest the Lakers had been since early in the third quarter.
Fouling stops the clock. The Clippers seemed obsessed with running the clock when they had the ball on offense, yet for some reason decided it was a good idea to stop it on defense. Howard makes 51% of his free throws on the season and 58% on his career. No matter on you look at it, you have to figure he'll make at least one out of two when you foul him (which is exactly what he made in this one). NBA offenses, on average, score about one point per possession. So why would a coach actively choose to lengthen the game and hand the opposition the league average of points per possession while trying to maintain a lead? It makes no sense, and it came dangerously close to burning the Clippers in this one. Specifically, on the two possessions where the Clippers intentionally fouled Howard, the Lakers used a total of eight seconds and scored two points. On the intervening possession where they actually played defense, the Lakers used 16 seconds and turned the ball over.
If the final 10 minutes were less than beautiful, the first 38 looked much like you might want a Clippers win over the Lakers to look. The Clippers forced steals, got and and ran, got fast break baskets and lots of dunks. Green stepped up in Crawford's absence and made 4-6 field goals including a three pointer. Bledsoe also broke out of his mini-slumber, hitting his first three shots and also leaving his unique mark on the game as the best rebounder and shot blocker in the game at his size. He grabbed three offensive rebounds overall, a couple of crucial ones late, and also had a gorgeous block at the rim on Jody Meeks in the first half.
For the Lakers, it was almost entirely Bryant and Howard, with some timely support off the bench from Jordan Hill. But what exactly has become of Pau Gasol? It wasn't that long ago that he was the most skilled player his size in the entire NBA, but he's become almost entirely invisible for the Lakers. He scored just two points (his lowest point total in a game in which he played more than five minutes since his third game in the NBA, over 11 years ago) and would have sat the entire fourth quarter in deference to Jody Meeks had Howard not fouled out in the final minute. The Lakers problems become pretty obvious when Gasol is as unproductive as this -- this is not a deep team to begin with, and if one of their All Stars is a non-entity then it presents a huge problem.
For the Clippers this win has got to feel good. They have another tough game tomorrow night against the Warriors, and if Crawford is unable to play it will get even tougher. But a win against the Lakers sends them in to the Golden State game on a high note. A 10 game lead over the Lakers is uncharted territory for the Clippers, but so far they seem to be finding their way just fine.