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The Clippers Last Play in Regulation Last Night

I didn't focus on the final play in regulation in my recap.  It ended up being a decent look for Al Thornton, and it almost went in.  But we're getting a little more information about it at this point.

Milph were expecting the play to be called for Zach Randolph, as was I, as was everyone else in the United Center.  So why did the ball go to Thornton?  Was it to try to catch the Bulls off-guard?  Well, let's face it, if you're trying to cross them up, to use Randolph as a decoy, you don't just iso Thornton on the wing.  In order to use Randolph as a decoy, you have to, you know, use him as a decoy - have him involved somehow.  Watching the play, it simply looked like an iso for Al, plain and simple.

After Randolph scored on the first possession of OT, Milph wondered aloud where that play was at the end of regulation.  MDsr overheard them, and shot them a look that they interpreted as "That was the play - they effed it up."  At the time, I thought they might have been misinterpreting the look.  But sure enough, in his press conference he said it in no uncertain terms:

The play was for Randolph.  He'd been killing them every time down the floor. Al just slashed in and got the ball. Yeah, he shot a good shot; the ball was in and out. But the guy who had the hot hand for us was the guy we wanted to go to.

Which begs the question, how does that happen?  It's also an interesting case-in-point in the discussion about Al on a recent FanPost.  Should we be really, really concerned about his basketball IQ?

I went back and re-watched the play on the DVR just now.  Like I said, when I watched it the first time, it didn't look like a broken play, so I wondered if MDsr was engaging in some revisionist history.

  • There are 20 seconds left in the game.  Eric Gordon inbounds the ball to Baron Davis on the right wing.  This looks like a play for Randolph so far, since that's the side he likes - oh, and they've only run this play about 20 straight times in the fourth quarter so far, so I recognize it.
  • What happens next is what threw me.  Randolph fades away to the left, free throw line extended.  At the time I remember thinking, "That's weird.  I guess they're not running that play, since he'd be down near the baseline to set up the cross screen if they were planning to get him the ball."
  • Rewatching it, I realize that they were just burning some clock.  They didn't want Zach to shoot too early in a tie game, so they wanted to get him the ball with 10 or 12 seconds left.  So Zach's just hanging out for a few seconds.
  • Just before Gordon starts down to set the cross screen, you can hear MDsr's voice on the telecast:  "Al! Al!"  I didn't notice it at the time, nor would I have known the significance, but in hindsight he was trying to get Al's attention, because he was in the wrong position. 
  • Gordon sets the cross screen, and Al is the one that pops over.  Surprise, surprise.  There's about 10 seconds left now, so the play is officially broken - no time to reset.  Baron can either give the ball to Al and let him go one-on-one, keep the ball and go one-on-one himself, or call a timeout (the Clippers had one left).  He gives the ball to Al.
  • So that's why it looked like the play was called for Al.  Everyone ran the play correctly except for AT, who just happened to take the Z-Bo role for himself. 
  • In re-watching with the new information, you can tell by Randolph's reaction that he was supposed to get the ball.  He throws his hands in the air as the ball rims out, and he's very frustrated and perplexed on the bench.

So in the course of less than 10 seconds of game time, you have two crucial mistakes by the Clippers last two draft picks.  Ouch. 

In the case of Gordon's foul, it's fairly easy to understand - in a split second, in a big situation, he knows he's hung up on the screen, and he does the one thing he should not do - he reaches and fouls.  Not smart, but I get it.

But what was Al thinking?  Was he not paying attention in the huddle?  Did he willfully usurp Randolph's position in the play, deciding on his own that he wanted to be the hero?  I'm not sure how you confuse "The play is for Zach" with "The play is for Al."  Or maybe they talk in code in the huddles, and it was play Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot-Blue and Al thought it he said Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot-2.  Seems unlikely though.  I'm guessing MDsr said something like "Same play we've been running all 4th quarter."  So it's difficult to explain what Al might have been thinking.

Still, I want to put point something out.  These were mistakes, no question.  But we don't know what would have happened had these mistakes not occurred.  Let's say EJ doesn't commit that foul.  Clippers win, right?  Not necessarily.  Ben Gordon makes the three, there are still 20 seconds on the clock.  Bulls foul, and even if the Clippers make both free throws, there's still plenty of time for Chicago to tie the game with another three.  I said it last night - the Clippers win over Portland, with Blake missing 4 of 5 free throws in 30 seconds, was MUCH more unlikely than this game.

And we don't know that Z-Bo would have scored had the final play been run correctly.  It's the play we wanted, it's the play MDsr called, and it doesn't excuse Thornton's bonehead mistake - but we don't know what would have happened.  If Al's shot goes in (which it almost did, after all), the Clippers win and he's the hero.  It didn't.  No big deal.

There's another interesting bit from the story in the LA Times.  Randolph and Camby were complaining after the game about the SECOND offensive foul - when the Clippers were still only down one - not the first one, the reversed call.  And yes, everyone knows that Andres Nocioni is a talented flopper.

(A quick aside - there's a slightly xenophobic tone to some complaints about the Argentine's and their embellishments on the court.  Let's be clear.  Selling fouls is a HUGE part of international soccer, and if you grow up in a soccer mad country, it's simply part of what you do.  It's part of the game.  It is also effective.  So while some may find it distasteful, it's really up to the referees to sniff it out and make better calls.  You can't really blame the players, and I do not.  Maybe Citizen edu_argentina can expound on this point some.)

My immediate reaction to that play, watching it in real time, was that Nocioni was flopping.  It just didn't look like Zach turned that hard.  On the replay, it was clear there was contact, and Ralph commented, "Not much question about it."

But I guarantee you that Nocioni sold it.  We've all played enough basketball to know that when you catch someone in the jaw, and you really get them - you get them hard - you know it, and you're first reaction is a human reaction.  "Oh crap!  Are you OK?"  Zach on the other hand was immeditately livid.  Which makes me believe that he knows he barely touched the guy.  Add in the fact that this was the call he was complaining about after the game, when he had PLENTY of questionable and significant calls to choose from, and I'm completely convinced that Nocioni turned incidental contact into a life threatening situation.  And he continued to rub his jaw on the bench during the time out.  The guy is good.  Too good.

Going back to the play at 3:39 when a foul was called on Nocioni, you can see him lobbying the refs after the whistle, pantomiming an elbow - he set the whole thing up beautifully.  On the subsequent offensive foul, he basically put his head as close to Zach as he could, almost resting it on Zach's shoulder, then snapped it back when Zach turned.  It's pretty brilliant, especially if you, like me, don't think the contact was significant.  Usually when watching the replay, you can spot the acting job - the reaction is delayed just enough.  But this had the rare quality of the truly great flops; it actually looked BETTER on the replay than in real time.  In real time, the action-reaction wasn't quite right: Zach does a small turn, and Nocioni ends up in the first row.  But slowed down, you take the physics out, and you just have a blow to the jaw, and a perfectly timed head snap.  Bravo, senor Nocioni.  Bravo.

One final aside from the perspective of a journalism student: the Times did not send Lisa Dillman on this trip.  We got an AP story from OKC.  We got a Chicago reporter, KC Johnson, on this one, since the Tribune company which owns the times is based in Chicago.