The Los Angeles Clippers shot under 40% from the field, under 30% from beyond the three point line, and missed 16 free throws. Given those facts, the question is not why did they lose, so much as how were they within two points twice in the final 90 seconds. And although they had a chance to beat the dreaded Grizzlies in Memphis, they couldn't get the last crucial stop they needed, and lost for the second straight time since the All Star break.
Even in the first quarter, when things were going very well for the Clippers and they built a 27-21 lead, the seeds of trouble were being sown. Blake Griffin was unbelievably good, and the Clippers were getting some easy chances in transition, but nothing else that the Clippers needed to get a win in Memphis was working. They were 1-7 from three point range; not counting Griffin, who made three mid-range jumpers, they were 1-10 out of the paint. And lest you think it was just great perimeter defense forcing the Clippers to miss, on a single play Darren Collison had two looks at a corner three pointer all alone with all the time in the world -- he missed both, and that seemed to set the tone for the Clippers.
Games turn on funny plays, and this one turned in the second quarter with ten unlikely players on the court. The Clippers' anemic second unit (J.J. Redick needs to get healthy and Glen Davis needs to get signed really fast) managed to score four Collison free throws to open the quarter (four of the seven points the Clippers got off the bench in this game). On the next play, Willie Green got a steal, and for some reason decided to challenge James Johnson going in for a layup; Johnson didn't get a block, he got a volleyball kill. The loose ball wound up in a jump ball between Hedo Turkoglu (6'10) and Nick Calathes (6'3); Turkoglu won the tap, but Green let Tony Allen get to the ball and the play wound up being a fast break layup for Allen. The combination of Johnson's block and Allen's hustle and layup turned the game completely on its ear and ignited a 23-7 Grizzlies run that turned an eight point Clippers lead into a six point deficit. Johnson, who the Grizzlies signed out of the D-League back in December, scored 13 points in the quarter, including a pass to himself off the backboard for a two-handed dunk. Yeah, that happened.
The Clippers managed to battle back in the third quarter. They took the lead briefly on a couple of occasions, and tied the game one last time at 68, but the subsequent possession was another one of those game-changers. On a completely broken possession in which the Clippers took away everything the Grizzlies tried to do, Allen was forced to shoot a double clutching three pointer at the shot clock buzzer. He made it. It was his sixth three pointer of the season, and he was 5-27 from deep coming into the game. They scored on another broken possession the next time down, took a five point lead into the fourth quarter and never trailed again.
For much of this game, the Grizzlies were not the team that we have feared; they did some things very well, but they just weren't that team. Mike Conley may still be hurting, but he was not particularly good, and was benched in favor of Calathes late. Marc Gasol likewise is hurting, and was good but not great. But Allen, in his first game in almost two months, was exactly the guy we know and loathe (and the guy who seems to make shots against the Clippers more so than against other teams-- he was 4-4 in this one); and when the game was on the line, the went to Zach Randolph over and over, and it paid off. The Grizzlies only had six offensive rebounds in the game, but they got two in the final minute to seal the game.
It's worth noting that there were three technical fouls called in this game, and I have no idea what anyone did to deserve any of them. The first, called against Blake Griffin early in the fourth quarter, was a blatantly incorrect call. After being whistled for traveling, Griffin's momentum took him into Kosta Koufos who lost his balance and fell backwards -- it was garden-variety contact that happens on every play in the NBA, absolutely nothing worth mentioning. The official standing directly behind Koufos, Ben Taylor, called a technical foul on Griffin, apparently assuming that Griffin had shoved Koufos -- which replays clearly showed he had not. There are many flavors of bad calls in the NBA, but this one may infuriate me more than any other, and it's astounding how frequently you see it: an official who clearly has no angle on a play, making a call based on an assumption. Both of the other two officials saw exactly what happened and made no call -- Taylor saw Koufas falling towards him, saw nothing from Griffin (because he could not have and also because Griffin did nothing) and called a technical foul. Maddening. The league will rescind the T, but that point might have been nice to have back during the game.
Later, with just over a minute left, as Chris Paul was waiting to shoot the second of two free throws, the whistle blew and a referee (I don't know which one) called a technical foul. Ralph and Mike thought the T was on Courtney Lee and that the Clippers would have the chance to cut the lead to one with the technical free throw; they were disappointed to learn that it was a double technical, resulting in no shots. During the broadcast we never heard who on the Clippers had been whistled. According to the box score, it was Paul. What? I went back and re-watched the sequence: Paul is the foul shooter, so he's on camera the entire time. After the first shot, he can be seen to be saying something to Lee in a wide shot. The camera then switches to a close up of Paul as he's getting ready to shoot the second free throw, and that's when the whistle blows. We can't see Lee at that point, so there's no way of knowing what he might have done or said -- but Paul was getting ready to shoot a free throw, looking at no one, saying nothing, when the foul was actually called. I have no clue whether Lee earned his T or not; as for Paul, he might have said something T-worthy about 10 seconds before the whistle blew, but why not call it then if it happened? I'm not sure how you can possibly call a delayed reaction double T in that manner.
Those were just a few of the bizarre whistles in the game. There was also the offensive foul on Jamal Crawford when Mike Miller appeared to grab him as Crawford ran past. (I rewatched that one several times, and Prime Ticket did not have the best angle to see what might have happened. The official was saying that Crawford grabbed Miller's arm as he was running past, to make it look as if Miller was holding him. It's possible the official got it right, and if he did, good for him. Because if Crawford did it, it was not at all obvious -- neither Prime Ticket replay caught it, though neither proves that he didn't do it either. Crawford was still talking to Miller about it several plays later, so it was pretty clear that he did not think he did anything wrong.) That was another HUGE play in the game, because instead of Crawford shooting two free throws with a chance to cut the lead to five, Miller made a three to stretch it back to 10.
The Clippers also benefited from a very questionable call late when Calathes appeared to pick Griffin clean after a rebound but was whistled for a foul. That call could have been a game-changer -- Griffin's free throws got the Clippers to within four points, as close as they had been since the third quarter. But the Clippers could not quite complete the comeback.
I said going into the game that the Clippers needed to make their perimeter shots and that Chris Paul needed to make shots in order to win the game. Neither of those things happened, as the Clippers shot 7-24 from deep and Paul shot 4-13. I didn't mention that the Clippers needed to make their free throws, which, as it turns out, would have been enough. Even considering the three point shooting and Paul's off night, if the Clippers just make their normal percentage from the line, they're two points up in the final two minutes of this game instead of two points down.