I wish the Los Angeles Clippers' biggest problem were that they take teams too lightly and play down to their competition. I wish it were just a matter of letting the Sacramento Kings back into this game when they should have put a bow on it early after building a 20 point lead at 40-20. It would be a problem, but an identifiable and fixable problem if the Clippers just had a problem with maintaining focus when they become overconfident. After all, if your biggest problem is playing badly against bad teams, that won't be an issue in the playoffs, when there are no bad teams.
Much more disconcerting is the fact that the Clippers' defense seems wholly incapable of getting a stop, even against a second tier team, even when the game is in the balance and focus should not be an issue.
Yes, the Clippers erased a five point deficit in the final three minutes to win the game by a point. How exactly they did that without getting a single stop during that time is hard to fathom. It helps that they Clippers themselves got nine points on three consecutive three point trips (the first aided by a DeMarcus Cousins technical foul, the second a corner three by Jared Dudley and the third a miracle fallaway three by Chris Paul at the shot clock buzzer).
But at the other end, where the Clippers have struggled all season, they were completely unable of defending the Kings, or at least of doing so without fouling them. Isaiah Thomas is clearly a very difficult cover for Paul, who probably prefers to be the small, tricky guy in his point guard matchups. On the Kings final five possessions of the game (not including the one with two seconds remaining) they went to the free throw line four times and got a layup on the fifth. Only the fact that Cousins missed a pair of free throws on one of his trips allowed the Clippers the opening to regain the lead and barely hang on for the win.
So, yes, teams now bring their A-game every time to play the Clippers, and yes Thomas and Cousins seem to be particularly bad matchups for them and yes LA did get the win. But you can't allow opponents to score 33 points in the fourth quarter on your home court and expect to win basketball games. By my count the Clippers only got five defensive rebounds the entire fourth quarter -- and two of those came after missed free throws. On a level playing field, the Kings outrebounded their own missed shots 5-3 in the fourth. That can't happen.
Still, it's nice to have a Chris Paul around when you need one. With Blake Griffin suffering through his worst game of the sason (3-10 from the field, six turnovers) and Jamal Crawford also struggling (2-9) it was Paul who pulled the Clippers' bacon out of the fire. In the final two minutes and change, he was directly involved in the Clippers final 11 points. He assisted on the Dudley three, made his three, made a layup, assisted on a Griffin dunk, and made the winning free throw with 2.5 seconds remaining. He was into it too -- it's incredibly common to catch other Clippers, especially DeAndre Jordan, dropping F-bombs all over the STAPLES Center court. But after making a layup to regain the lead at 100-98, the usually demure Paul let out an emphatic "Yeah, M***** F*****" -- which Prime Ticket was kind enough to replay in super slow mo for the lip reading impaired (I promise, the hearing impaired got it the first time).
The Clippers and the Kings play each other again on Friday in Sacramento, and if you thought this game was heated, wait until you see what happens next. When Travis Outlaw clotheslined J.J. Redick in the fourth quarter, earning a Flagrant 2 foul and an ejection in the process, the always professional and subdued Redick, while flat on his back, looked at Outlaw and said "I'm gonna remember you" -- he did this, it must be noted, in a professional and subdued manner. Cousins spent most of the night on the verge of a hissy fit, slipping into full hissy on several occasions. He picked up his T at a critical juncture for following through his block down onto Griffin long after the whistle had blown for an earlier loose ball foul, and everyone in the building except the three referees knows he should have gotten a second technical and the accompanying ejection 99 seconds later over his reaction to a foul call that put Paul on the line. After the final whistle, Paul went to shake Thomas' hand and Cousins told him not to; when Thomas tried to anyway, he literally pulled him away. Wow. I've seen guys be bad sports after a tough loss, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone who was such a bad sport that they wouldn't let their teammate be a good sport. So yeah, don't miss Friday, because there will certainly be fireworks.
I had such high hopes for the Clippers early in this game. They haven't had a dominant win all season, and they need one. Even when they've led wire to wire, it's been because of unstoppable offense, while their defense was terrible but irrelevant. Early in the second quarter, this appeared to be the game they would win handily, controlling both ends of the floor for both halves. But it was not to be. The Kings sliced them up like it was early Thanksgiving in the second and fourth quarters, and the Clippers are very, very lucky to come away with a win.
Fourteen games in and still no defense to speak of. Yeah, I'm worried.