The Los Angeles Clippers' 11 game winning streak ended with a thud in Denver Monday night. It was bound to end eventually, and I'm not sure there's a way that you want a winning streak to end. But it certainly feels dissatisfying to lose the game not because the Nuggets played great, but because the Clippers played, so, so poorly.
Everything just seemed to catch up with the Clippers all at once. They looked lethargic from the start, playing at altitude on the second night of a back to back. (They arrived at their hotel in Denver about 4 AM this morning after their game in Los Angeles last night.) Sometimes you get a second wind in a game like this -- not this time. The lack of energy that plagued them the at the outset of the game only became more acute as the evening wore on.
The altitude, the fatigue, the injuries -- it all added up to a really bad showing by the team. Not to mention that Blake Griffin, who hadn't really had a bad game in over a month was bound to have a stinker at some point. That point was tonight in Denver.
Griffin made just 7-25 from the field (though he did make all 12 of his free throws). But bad shooting nights happen. The bigger problem was that Griffin was simply a step slow all night. He was pretty thoroughly outplayed by J.J. Hickson, who scored 21 points on 14 shots, and really dominated Griffin in the paint. Griffin was a step slow all night, allowing Hickson to get position on him time and again on really the simplest of plays. This wasn't a case of Griffin not knowing what he was supposed to do on defense. He knew, and he was either too slow, or too tired, or too disinterested to get to where he needed to be, over and over and over.
Amazingly, despite not looking good at all, the Clippers took a 98-96 lead with x:xx remaining, with Chris Paul heading to the free throw line looking to complete a three point play. And from there the wheels finally came completely off. Paul missed the free throw, Ty Lawson hit a three to give the Nuggets the lead, and Denver closed on a 14-2 run, not because they were playing well but because the Clippers just finally ran completely out of gas.
The truth is the Clippers had no business being in the game at all, and only a 23-25 performance from the free throw line really kept them in it (23 or the 25 free throws came from Paul and Griffin, with CP3 recording the teams only two misses. The free throws and a good game from Paul were all the Clippers had working. But it's not even as if Paul was great -- he continually beat the Nuggets defense for wide open shots, and he'd probably be the first to tell you that he probably should have made more than 10 for 19. Still, he did finish with 29 points, and if anyone else had stepped up to help him, the Clippers probably would have won.
Because Denver wasn't particularly good, although they did make a whole bunch of timely baskets. In the second half, the Nuggets had six and-one baskets, a pretty remarkable number. They only shot 41% from the field on the night, and by my math they were almost as good when they got fouled (6-16, ,375) as when they didn't get fouled.
It wasn't the Clippers night for any number of reasons, but it all came together on a play in the third quarter. With the Clippers up three after back to back three pointers by Matt Barnes and Willie Green (a welcome change after they'd made just 1-8 from deep in the first half) it felt like maybe they were going to get something going. On the ensuing Denver possession, the Nuggets had nothing going, and Griffin blocked Kenneth Faried shot with just a few seconds left on the shot clock. But Griffin failed to gather the loose ball, and instead kicked it to Ty Lawson, who launched a desperation three at the shot clock buzzer. The ball banked in, and the crew also called a dubious shooting foul on Paul, who then argued the call and picked up a technical foul from the short-fused Joey Crawford.
Amazingly, the crew then reviewed the play to see if everything had actually occurred before the shot clock buzzer -- and the replay clearly showed that the ball was still in Lawson's hands when the shot clock expired. So no basket right? Wrong. The decision was that Paul's foul had occurred before the buzzer, which apparently magically suspends the shot clock and allows the continuation, as if other rules no longer apply once the foul is whistled. (Here's my question -- can you travel after a foul has been called and still have the basket count?) I've been watching basketball for close to 50 years and I have never seen this situation. I have no idea what the rule book says, but if it says what they ruled in Denver tonight, it shouldn't.
At any rate, with the basket, the technical free throw and the foul (all three of them questionable, bear in mind) it became a five point play for the Nuggets, and the momentum that the Clippers had started to build quickly dissipated.
The Clippers now have four full days off, and they can use them. They were missing guards J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison to begin the game, and they could have used any or all of them with so many others struggling to score. During the game Paul rolled his ankle, took a Wilson Chandler knee to the head, and was laid out by Faried, but he stayed in the game through all of that. Then Willie Green rolled his ankle late in the third quarter, and the Clippers finished the game with only one guard of the five on their roster actually playing -- rookie Reggie Bullock played 14 of the final 15 minutes of the game at shooting guard.
Collison will be fine by Saturday's game against the Pistons, and Crawford may be back by then as well. It's still unclear when or if Redick will be back, but getting even a couple of those guys back will make a big difference.
In the end, this was always going to be a tough game: we knew that just looking at the schedule. The Nuggets were certainly beatable in this game -- but it would have required a sharper team than the Clippers were tonight. The streak was going to end some time, and it was almost inevitable that would be in Denver.