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Clippers 120 - Nets 107

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My apologies for the weak Jazz recap and the absence of a preview for the Nets game.  I was a little depressed about the way Utah dominated and didn't really want to dwell on it - it was feeling particularly pointless in the 'this isn't even the Clippers team without EB' vein.  And then there was a big day of canyoneering Saturday.  If you're lucky, you may get a fun picture of ClipperSteve jumping down a section of rocks.  It was probably only about 10 feet onto sand, but the angle of the shot makes it look pretty cool.  But I have to wait until I get the photos from my buddy.

And then there was a basketball game.  Thank goodness for New Jersey.  Last season it was Cat Mobley's buzzer beating three.  This season it's the Clippers first Overtime win.

Also for the first time this season, the Clippers have a second win against an opponent.  They lost rematches against such uninspiring opposition as Seattle, Indiana and Chicago.  It's also highly likely that this is the ONLY team the Clippers will end up sweeping this season.  The Generic Clippers aren't really good enough to expect to go 4-0 or even 3-0 against Western Conference teams, even the bad ones.  (They already lost to Seattle, though I suppose they could go 4-0 against Minnesota.  I see no way they are good enough to sweep Sacramento or Memphis in 4 meetings.)

As for the East, well it's just easier to sweep a two game series.  But with losses to Charlotte and Miami and Milwaukee and Chicago, they've already missed out on some of the more likely sweeps.  They're 1-0 against the Knicks, so that could happen.  Philadelphia is the only other team near the bottom of the standings in the East that they haven't played yet.  Sweep Atlanta or Washington?  Maybe.  Sweep Boston?  I don't think so.

So, like I said, thank goodness for New Jersey.

This game was pretty interesting.  New Jersey is supposed to be the big three of Kidd, Carter and Jefferson and then not much else, right?  Well, Josh Boone was a monster with 17 points and 16 boards.  Sean Williams was a monster with 11 points, 11 boards and 6 blocks.  And Marcus Williams returned from the dead to score 17 points in 22 minutes (his season high in 10 games, believe it or not, was 3).  So with those three youngsters making major contributions, you'd think the Nets would be among the top teams in the league given the three All Star candidates playing with them.  Not so.

Carter scored 20 points on 18 shots.  He was also the defender the Clippers choose to attack in the fourth quarter.  With a rookie.

Kidd is still an impressive leader and among the best passers in the league.  But it's telling that there are very few point guards in the NBA that the Clippers feel comfortable defending with Sam Cassell.  Mr. Triple Double is one of them.  Kidd also had two horrible turnovers at the beginning of overtime that helped the Clippers build an insurmountable lead.

And Jefferson had a nice enough game, but was only 5 for 14 from the floor.  Jefferson may be one of those players that isn't really as good as Jason Kidd makes him look.  He's active and moves well without the ball, and playing with Kidd you're going to score a lot of easy baskets doing that.  But the Clippers did a pretty good job of defending him when he had the ball (though he did get to the line 13 times).

Still, with Kidd dishing 11 assists and shooting 4 for 8, Jefferson and Carter scoring 21 and 20, and the aforementioned youngsters playing well, the Generic Clippers would have to play a perfect game to win, right?  Well, being outrebounded 54-40 (and giving up 20 offensive rebounds) is not perfect.  5 for 16, 0 free throws, 1 assist and 4 turnovers for second leading scorer and first option on offense Chris Kaman is not perfect.  At first glance in the box score, it doesn't seem like the Clippers could have won this game.  

But looking closer, you see that the Clippers 10 turnovers versus 17 for the Nets went a long way towards offsetting the rebounding discrepancy.  In fact, despite 20 offensive rebounds, the Nets only attempted 3 more field goals, while free throws were basically even (35 for LA, 34 for NJ).  

And while the Clippers bigs were ineffective on offense (Kaman 5 for 16, Thomas 4 for 13), the perimeter players were amazingly efficient.  Corey Maggette (11-16), Sam Cassell (9-16), Cuttino Mobley (4-8) and Al Thornton each shot 50% (or a lot better).  Furthermore, because they did such a good job of getting to the free throw line, each of them ended the game with gaudy points-per-shot averages:  Maggette 31 points on 16 shots, Cassell 22 on 16, Mobley 19 on 8, and Thornton 22 on 12.  That's 84 points on 52 shots, over 1.6 points per shot, from four perimeter players.  That's efficiency.

Though Maggette, Cassell and Mobley were terrific, Thornton was really the story of this game.  From the point where he banked in a 30 footer to cut New Jersey's lead from 4 to 1 at the third quarter buzzer through the Overtime, he score 18 of his 22 points.  He scored a dozen during the crucial fourth quarter, and added 2 key assists for good measure.  

Most interesting perhaps is that the Clippers rode the rookie during the fourth.  He wasn't scoring on garbage plays or filling the lane on the break.  Play after play, the Clippers cleared out the side for Al to go at Vince Carter.  It's not my favorite style of basketball, but it worked.  With Cassell and Maggette on the bench to begin the period, the ball went to Al on three out of five possessions at one point, and he scored on all three.  Interestingly, the other two plays went to Tim Thomas isolated on Sean Williams.  The result?  Two Williams blocked shots.  The whole sequence went against the conventional wisdom of the NBA - in the fourth quarter of a close game, the rookie Thornton was torching the veteran Carter, while the veteran Thomas was being embarrassed by the rookie Williams.

Something needs to be said about Sean Williams at this point.  That guy is amazing.  What a steal to get him at 17 in the draft.  Of course, there's a reason he was available at 17 and that may prove to be an issue yet, but man is that guy long.  He's currently second in the NBA in blocks per 48 minutes behind only Marcus Camby.  But what's more amazing is that, in this game at least, he gets his block on the ball.  He wasn't roaming the weak side looking to send back driving layups from little guards (as Camby does in Denver).  5 of his 6 blocks came as he was defending a big, and 4 of those in straight one on one defense against the 6'10" Thomas.  That's pretty amazing.  (It also begs the question of why the Clippers kept going to that matchup, but that's another story.)  We've noted how well Thomas has been playing lately, with the exception of his suddenly horrible three point shooting.  In this game, the combination of three missed threes and four Williams rejections accounted for 7 of Tim's 9 misses.  Ouch.  

Speaking of blocked shots, Chris Kaman had 9 for the Clippers.  In the first two minutes of this game, K2 had two plays that will be on highlight reels for years to come, one on each end.  On his first touch on offense, he spun baseline on Williams (sure he got away with a travel) and finished with a left handed layup from under the basket.  It was one of the moves he makes where you just shake your head at his combination of skill and size.  Seconds later, Williams got a pass in the lane and thought he had a clear path for the right handed monster jam.  But K2's big left hand met the ball in front of the rim and stopped it dead.  It was a block that you just don't see that often.  At the rim, above the rim, surgically clean and rock solid.  They replayed it about 100 times, and I didn't get tired of it.

As it happens, those two plays held the seeds of Kaman's entire game.  On defense, he was a force.   His 9 blocked shots shattered his previous career high of 6.  There were numerous other intimidations and altered shots.  And although 12 rebounds is below his season average, it often seemed like K2 was by himself on the boards.  Not only was he defending the rim, he then battled both Boone and Williams for every rebound.  

On offense, he was Mr. Flippy.  The spin move was beautiful - but why a reverse lay up with the left hand?  He was past his man, at the rim.  That's a ball he needs to dunk - or at least gather and go strong.  He has the skills of a guard, and sometimes he seems compelled to finish like a guard around the basket.  But he's over 7 feet tall.  Gather, go strong, finish.  Later in the game, he spun past Boone and found himself alone at the rim - and dropped the ball out of bounds.  In his defense, he was being swarmed on most touches, and benefited from only one whistle the entire night, a non-shooting foul less than 4 minutes in (which seems statistically impossible in 44 minutes of aggressive defense, but whatever).  But he's got to be stronger with the ball, and stronger on his finishes, which will have the extra added benefit of forcing the refs to give him calls.  Finally, in the overtime, he finished with authority to give the Clippers a four point lead on their way to the win.

I feel compelled to comment on the Clippers losing a five point lead in the final 45 seconds.  But truthfully, they didn't do a lot wrong.  As often happens in that situation, they were a little too pre-occupied with defending the three and not fouling and wound up surrendering a Jefferson dunk four seconds into the first possession.  That's not good, but they're certainly not the first NBA team to have that happen nursing a five point lead.  On their own possession, they played by the NBA book and worked the clock (a small enough thing, but most welcome after the last possession of the Dallas game).  So while the did not get a good shot, they did take a full 28 seconds off the clock (aided by a NJ kicked ball that put 5 seconds back on the shot clock).  You can't ask for much more than that.  The long rebound that fell into Kidd's hands was the best thing that could have happened for the Nets.  He pushed the ball up the court, eschewed the time out, passed to Carter at the three point line and had a wide open three on the pass back.  In a perfect world, Cat probably doesn't leave Kidd to run at Carter (Maggette was coming up behind Carter and was going to get there before Cat), or more accurately the Clippers asa a whole do a better job in transition defense (on a possession where your first goal is to work the clock, there's not much excuse for not getting back in transition), but there were no glaring mistakes.  Long rebound to Kidd, and he ends up draining the tying three.  Give him credit.  And after all that, the Clippers ran a nice inbounds play for Thomas and he had a great look at the game winner - which was of course blocked by Williams (Thomas is going to have nightmares about that guy).  So you hate to lose a 5 point lead in 45 seconds, but unlike the Dallas game or other late Clipper meltdowns of recent vintage, there were no egregiously stupid plays or bad defense.  As sometimes happens, they effectively played not to lose doing those last few possessions, which had meant they gave up a layup and then didn't get a good shot.  

But give them credit for coming out in the OT and putting the game away.  In fact, from the point where Carter finished a three point play to build the Nets biggest lead of the game at 94-87, the Clippers outscored the Nets 33 to 13 over the next 9 minutes.  So although New Jersey managed to prolong it, the Clippers seemed confident that they had the game in hand at that point.  

And they did.  Too bad there are no more New Jersey games on the schedule.