That was unexpected.
Let's get Boston's excuses out of the way up front. Kevin Garnett wasn't playing. And they were on the final game of a road trip. And they missed their free throws or they would have won. Got it. Of course, for the Clippers neither Chris Kaman nor Al Thornton played, and Eric Gordon left early in the third quarter with a bruised shoulder. And the Clippers too missed a slew of free throws and actually shot a lower percentage from the line. So let's call it even.
A Boston fan commented on the Game Preview that "unless the Celtics completely don't show up and the Clippers play their best game of the year, I dont think this is a winnable game for your Clippers." And you know what? It was a reasonable observation. But it didn't turn out that way.
Because this was FAR from the Clippers best game of the year. Oh, they did several things well, that much is true. But their second leading scorer didn't play. Their rookie go to scorer went 1 for 7 in only 21 minutes before he was injured. Their leading scorer was not sharp. And the three point shot which they've required in order to win games this season wasn't falling (they finished 5 for 22). I don't watch Boston day in and day out, so I can't really gauge the exact degree to which they 'showed up'. But they looked to me like they were trying pretty hard out there.
What the Clippers did well tonight was play defense. Citizen Zhiv speculated earlier today that if Al Thornton was unable to play, it would help defensively as Mardy Collins would do a better job on Pierce. I thought Mardy would be better, but I was dubious as to whether he would actually be good. Well, he wasn't good - he was terrific. He held the finals MVP to 20 points on 7 for 19 shooting. In fact, when Collins was on the bench to begin the fourth quarter and Ricky Davis took the assignment, Pierce immediately scored 6 straight. What Mardy does well as a defender is he doesn't give up. He does not have great lateral quickness, and subsequently his man will get by him, but Mardy trails the play and uses his long arms to poke at the ball. He picks up a fair number of fouls that way, but he also gets some clean deflections and blocks (he got a nice one on Pierce on a key play in the fourth). (Pierce is no doubt pissed off about all the reaching and slapping, given that he dislocated his thumb on a play in the third and got the same thumb slapped again in the fourth, but I think both of those were Baron Davis.)
As we discussed in the preview, the Celtics without Garnett would rely on their perimeter players. With Collins doing a solid job on Pierce, the next option is Ray Allen. Allen finished with 17 points on 4 for 10 shooting - the primary Clipper defenders (Gordon before he left the game, and Fred Jones the rest of the time) did a great job of keeping track of him and simply not letting him get too many looks. The help defenders also did their jobs by showing on screens and just not letting Ray get free.
So then comes Rajon Rondo. We were very concerned that Baron Davis would have trouble keeping Rondo in front of him. Well, guess what? Rondo also scored 17, on 6 for 10 shooting, but most of those came on broken plays or in transition. In the half court, Baron basically shut Rondo down. (Rondo was the one out of the three who might be a candidate for not showing up - he didn't look real intense out there.)
The Clippers defense was clearly geared towards stopping those players. Time and again the Celtics wound up with a Glen Davis jump shot deep in the shot clock, which was clearly not the shot they wanted. Big Baby made his first 4, and finished 5 for 7. But you have to take that if you're LA. You design the defense to stop the other guys; if Glen Davis makes enough shots to beat you, so be it.
So the Clippers defense was good - much, much better than we've seen in recent weeks, which tells you a little something about getting up to play against the Champs. Even Zach Randolph was showing on screens and working hard on D, to the point where he was pretty good tonight (cat's out of the bag Zach - you've now shown you can do it, so we know you're just not working hard the rest of the time). It's amazing the difference a little extra effort makes.
But the Clipper offense was struggling. As I said in the preview, Zach's advantage on Kendrick Perkins was facing him up on the perimeter. He knew that too, and took a jumper on the first possession. He missed. The Clippers got the rebound, and Zach immediately shot again - and missed again. For the game, he was 0 for 6 from 15 feet and beyond. Which meant he had to go right at Perkins. Perkins is strong and he's long, and nothing was coming easy for Zach - especially considering that he wasn't really getting any calls. There have been games this season when Z-bo's been unstoppable - where you just knew the defender had no chance. This wasn't one of them. But to his credit, he kept working hard, and found ways to score. He finished with 30, but it took him 30 shots to get there.
So Zach wasn't really clicking; Gordon had a nightmare game that ended with an injury (ironically, they basically never called Perkins for pushing Zach, but he picked up at least three of his five fouls on illegal screens, including the one that sent EJ to the locker room); Steve Novak remained in his current slump (he missed several great looks early in the fourth when the Clippers were falling behind that you just expect him to bury). And although Baron Davis had a good offensive game (he finished 6 for 10, ending his streak of consecutive games without shooting above 50%), he wasn't exactly carrying the load, and Rondo is a terrific defender. So when the Clippers fell behind by 9 with 9 minutes to go, it wasn't looking good. Zach and Baron were facing tough matchups, Gordon and Thornton were gone. Who was left?
Enter Mardy Collins, go to scorer. It is fairly difficult to imagine a less likely fourth quarter scenario than going to Mardy Collins against Paul Pierce to mount a comeback, but that's exactly what happend. Just to be clear, Mardy Collins, before he came to the Clippers, had a reputation as one of the worst scorers in the league. He was a 35% career shooter in New York. Paul Pierce, in case you have forgotten, defended against Kobe Bryant in last year's finals and shut him down. But the play call, time and time again down the stretch, was an iso for Collins against Pierce. And amazingly, it actually worked for awhile. Mardy converted two baskets, assisted on a third, and broke down the defense on a fourth to the point where Marcus Camby was able to follow dunk his miss. With Fred Jones contributing a couple of timely baskets as well, the Clippers went on a 15-4 run to take a two point lead with just under 4 minutes to play.
The final 4 minutes were grueling. The Collins play wasn't working (not that it ever really should have). The Clippers did not get another point from their sets - both of their last two hoops came on offensive rebounds. But the defense (and some bad foul shooting by the Celtics) kept the game close enough that Zach's follow of Collins' air ball with 19 seconds left was enough for the win.
Fred Jones was great on defense. He got one steal and several deflections down the stretch. He also pretty much handled whoever he wound up on as the Clippers were switching screens - he defended well against Allen, and Pierce, and Rondo. Marcus Camby was defending the basket as always. And say what you will about the Celtics foul shooting, the Clippers were smart to put them on the line rather than letting them finish baskets down the stretch. In the final 9 minutes of the game, the Clippers held the Celtics to 9 points, and only 1 field goal. So yeah, this game was won on defense.
I feel like I have to say something about the call with 33 seconds left. After Rajon Rondo missed his free throw, Mardy Collins went up for the rebound, and the whistle blew as the Clippers wanted a time out. But before Collins had come down, Big Baby had stripped the ball from him. The timeout should never have been awarded - but it was. It was an anticipation call; the refs knew the Clippers wanted the time out, and they were trying to be right on top of the call. It was blown, and Doc Rivers was pissed as well he should have been. I'd feel worse for the Celtics if the sixth foul on Baron Davis directly before hadn't been such a bad call. But bad calls happen, and it was nice to benefit from one in the final minute for once.
[Speaking of Doc Rivers, anyone else think they had to adjust the volume or the bass or something when Doc was croaking out orders to the Celtics defense? Man, that is one gruff and annoying voice.]
It goes without saying that this is the Clippers biggest win of the season. The team continues to be a complete enigma. Three straight horrifying losses. Followed by two wins, including one over the Celtics. Better than a month of no defense at all - followed by solid defense in this game. Obviously, the best case scenario has always been that the team gets healthy and surprises enough opponents down the stretch to build momentum for next season. Well, color Boston surprised.
Note: X-Rays on Gordon's shoulder were negative, and there was no dislocation. It's 'just' a bruise, which is good news relatively speaking. But we'll have to wait and see if he can play in Sacramento on Thursday.