At halftime of the Los Angeles Clippers game against the Indiana Pacers Monday night, Chris Paul was 1-7, Jamal Crawford was 2-8, Roy Hibbert of the Pacers was 8-8, and the Clippers trailed by eight. So naturally I was feeling pretty good. After all, things couldn't have gone much worse for the Clippers or much better for the Pacers. It took a miracle, blind tip in from Caron Butler at the first half buzzer, so surely they'd carry that momentum into the second half, right?
Wrong. Willie Green scored the first basket after the intermission to cut the lead to six, and over the next eight minutes the Pacers went on a 28-10 run to open the lead up to 24. That stretch featured the Pacers scoring on 12 out of 15 possessions, a flagrant foul by Matt Barnes. three Clipper turnovers and a sequence where Vinny Del Negro wanted a timeout, but Paul tried to catch the Pacers sleeping, and instead wound up getting his shot blocked followed by yet another Pacers score before the timeout was finally called.
The score stood at 79-55 and the Clippers had been terrible. Paul was 1-9, Blake Griffin was out of sorts for the seventh straight game, and pretty much no one was playing well to that point.
With the first unit lethargic, ineffective and being thoroughly outplayed, Del Negro went with an all reserve lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins with three minutes remaining in the third. And with nothing really to lose, he went to the 1-2-2 zone that had helped the team mount a big comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder in February.
Suddenly, things began to change. Crawford began to heat up, the Bledsoe, Hollins and Barnes provided the energy that the team had been lacking all game, and Odom looked like the all-around player the Clippers had hoped for when they traded for him. When Crawford hit a corner three pointer with 3:38 left in the game, the Clippers had cut the Pacers 24 point lead down to four using a 38-18 run over less than 12 minutes of game time.
But as is often the case, though they had time at that point to complete the comeback, they just ran out of gas (and perhaps out of luck also). The Clippers had three possessions at 97-93 to cut further into the Pacers lead. The first one resulted in a questionable offensive foul call on Paul. The second went nowhere and ended with Odom taking a three pointer that barely grazed the rim. The next possession saw Griffin return to the game only to be called for a travel (which, it must be noted, was not even close to a travel). Three possessions down four, resulting in two turnovers and a forced three point attempt from a 20% three point shooter.
The Clippers still managed to cut the lead to two points on a Griffin dunk with 71 seconds left, but David West hit the shot of the game on a step back jumper as the shot clock expired on the next Indiana possession, and the Pacers hit eight straight free throws down the stretch to hold on.
Amazingly, the Clippers still had a couple of chances in the final seconds. Down four with 9.7 seconds left, the Pacers were called for a foul before the ball was inbounded, a potentially huge mistake that gave the Clippers one free throw and the ball. Crawford hit the free throw to give the Clippers possession with a chance to tie the game for the first time since the first minute of the game. Paul got a decent look at a three pointer that went halfway in and then came back out, but Barnes tipped in the miss, and was also hit by Paul George, though no foul was called. After the Pacers inbounded and the Clippers fouled, George made two more free throws to build the lead back to three with 1.9 seconds left. With no timeouts left, the Clippers managed to run a terrific play, with Barnes throwing a football pass to Griffin, he hit Odom with a touch pass, but Lamar's three pointer was straight but a bit long. An inch or two longer and the shot would have banked in; two or three inches shorter and it would have swished. Instead, it bounded off the rim, and the final horn sounded.
It's the Clippers third straight loss -- a terrible time to go on a three game losing streak. Worse still, coupled with a last second Memphis win over a Spurs team left shorthanded by the genius that is Gregg Popovich, the Clippers are now 1.5 games behind both the Grizzlies and the Nuggets, two full games back in the loss column. It's not impossible that the Clippers might overcome one or both of their immediate rivals in the final two weeks of the season, especially considering that they have a relatively easy remaining schedule, but they're digging themselves a pretty big hole. Not unlike Monday's game against the Pacers, the Clippers might make a valiant effort down the stretch, and still come up short of their goal simply because the hole is too deep.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this loss is the almost complete ineffectiveness of Paul and Griffin, the Clippers supposed stars. Griffin did finish with 17 points on 8-13 shooting, but managed only five rebounds, zero assists and two turnovers. As for Paul, for the sixth game this season he shot worse than 20% from the field. Not surprisingly, the Clippers have lost all six of those games. In his first season as a Clipper, Paul only had one game where he shot so poorly.
When the Clippers were riding high, they had the best of both worlds. They had the depth to blow teams out, and the star power to turn to in close games. It's a formula that theoretically would serve them well in the playoffs. Unfortunately, it is a formula that seems to have evaporated in March. At a minimum they need their stars to start playing like stars again or it's definitely going to be a very short post season.
For the Pacers perspective, visit Indy Cornrows.