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Clippers 104 - Bucks 103

Let's start with the positives.  The Clippers won two consecutive road games for only the second time this season.  They broke even on a road trip for only the second time this season.  They once again have that precious (8) next to their name in the standings, at least until about 10PM Friday night.  And they have played well for the better part of six consecutive games, more or less playing with their third and fourth string point guards.  

But they sure didn't make it easy on themselves in the fourth quarter of this one.  And that one atrocious quarter has the potential to undermine the 20 or so good quarters they played on this trip.  

I was a little too wound up last night to post a recap.  In fact, I was watching on the TiVo when the ClipperWidow arrived home from yoga just as Charlie Bell sank his first three to cut the lead to four.  She tried to watch some with me, but I guess I wasn't real pleasant to be around at that point.  No wonder she doesn't really like basketball.    

Looking at the play-by-play, and re-watching the game, I'm actually not as depressed as I had been.  Losing a 19 point fourth quarter lead is not a good thing, don't get me wrong.  But it actually wasn't that surprising.  Here's what I saw.

Going into the fourth, everyone thought it was already over, and the Clippers played like it.  Even Ralph and Mike had lost all of their focus.  The Bucks scored the first 6 points of the quarter to cut the lead to 13, but it wasn't until after Ewing made a bucket and then Redd made two free throws that Ralph NOTICED that the lead was down to 13.  In those sloppy and lackadaisical opening 3 minutes, the Clippers also committed 5 team fouls, meaning the Bucks would shoot free throws the rest of the way.

It's understandable, if not really excusable, that the team would lose it's intensity.  They had built a lead as high as 22 and had been scoring at will the entire game.  The Bucks were actually playing great on offense - Mo Williams and Ruben Patterson were both on fire, and although Michael Redd had not been unstoppable, he still had 16 through three quarters.  But the Clippers were scoring so easily, they just assumed it would continue.

After trading a few baskets, the lead was back to 13 with Corey Maggette shooting a second free throw when the Clippers went Sub-Zero cold.  Maggette missed the free throw, they missed their next 6 shots and another free throw, and also committed 3 silly turnovers.  Concurrently, the Bucks got a four point possession that cut the lead to 9.  What is it about the psychology of the double digit lead?  As long as the lead was 12 or 13, everyone on the floor seemed to know that they Clippers were going to win.  After that four point trip (a free throw, a rebound of a miss and a Redd three), everything changed.  By the way, the Clippers played outstanding defense on this game-changing play - Ross almost had the steal, and then was all over Redd when he made the three.  Sometimes good offense beats good defense.

Suddenly, down a manageable 9 instead of an insurmountable 10 (double digits are magical), the Bucks were pumped up.  The Clippers on the other hand, having lost their intensity when they had the big lead, now couldn't find it.  Where did you last see your intensity?  Did you re-trace your steps?  Maybe it's under the bed.  

The Bucks made 4 of 6 three-pointers in the fourth quarter, after going 0 for 4 in the first three.  They also made 14 of 16 free throws, thanks in large part to all of the silly fouls the Clippers committed in the first 3 minutes.  That's 26 points in ones and threes.  If you were looking for a formula for losing a big lead in the fourth quarter, that would be it: give up free throws (stops the clock, extends the game) and threes (gets points back in a hurry).  The Bucks were actually 3 for 9 on their two point attempts in the quarter.  

The Clipper offense never got going, but at least the defense dug in when it counted.  The Bucks first chance to take the lead came with 2 minutes left, and Elton Brand blocked Michael Redd's shoot.  Then, when the Bucks had a one point lead and the ball with 45 seconds left, the Clippers forced a shot clock violation to give themselves a chance to win the game.  Once again it was Brand, on Redd on a switch, who came up big.

As for the fourth quarter offense, well it has got to be a concern.  After shooting 56.5% through three quarters (35 for 62), the Clippers were 5 for 17 in the fourth.  Take away Corey Maggette's 3 for 5 and 8 points in the quarter, and the rest of the Clippers combined for 2 for 12 and 6 points.  Mobley 0 for 3, Kaman 0 for 2, Ross 0 for 1, Brand 0 for 1 and 2 for 4 from the line, Ewing 1 for 3, Hart 1 for 2 (the game-winner).  

This has of course long been an issue for the Clippers.  Where do they go when they need a basket in the fourth quarter when the opponent is playing its best defense?  Elton Brand remains a limited offensive player and is not yet great against the double team, Cuttino Mobley is hot-and-cold and almost NEVER hot in the crunch, and Corey Maggette lives and dies with his ability to get to the line, while refs are reluctant to make calls late in a game (after Corey's layup to bring the Clippers within one with 45 seconds left bodies were strewn under the basket like so many bowling pins with nary a whistle to be heard).  Sam Cassell was the guy the Clippers turned to last season; Shaun Livingston may someday be that guy.  But right now, there really isn't anyone.

Unless you count Jason Hart.