The Clippers played well enough to beat Utah for much of this game. They looked particularly sharp during the first half, when they built an eight point lead at 60-52. After they made the first basket of the second half, the lead stood at ten, and the Clippers were shooting 60% from the field. And for the next five minutes, the Clippers were atrocious.
It wasn't just that they couldn't make shots (which they couldn't, going 0 for 6 during the stretch, and 5 for 19 during the quarter). They couldn't even get clean shots for the most part. During those fateful five minutes, the Clippers either got their shot blocked or turned the ball over on seven out of eight possessions. The Jazz took advantage with a 13-0 run, which is not surprising since it's hard to score when you can't even get a shot off. Given that the final margin in the game was 12, that 13-0 run was pretty important.
I'm probably overemphasizing this, but it seems to me that the Clippers have created momentum swings against themselves with blown fastbreaks multiple times this season. In the Detroit game they failed to capitalize on multiple chances and kept the Pistons in the game. A similar pattern occurred in the Nets game. They gave away a chance to beat the Timberwolves by turning the ball over on a late game break. This afternoon, the Clippers got a steal early in the third that led to a three on two advantage with Eric Bledsoe in the middle and Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin filling the lanes, which would seem like an ideal situation. But a poorly executed lob to Griffin killed the break, and that's when Utah went on their run.
Now, I hate the hypocrites on TV who rail against lob passes when they don't work, but rave about them when they do work. Lob passes are great - but if you're going to throw them, you need to throw them well. In a three on two break, where the simple pass is going to get you a layup or a dunk, you better make a good lob pass if you go that route. The Clippers just don't appear to be that great at throwing lobs - at least not to moving targets. I mean, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan give you probably the widest lob margin for error in the league - if you're missing those targets, you need more practice.
Of course, it's part of the process that these young players are going to turn the ball over a lot, and at crucial times. But just because we understand what's happening and can explain why, it doesn't make it any easier to take.
By falling apart in the third, the Clippers squandered the dominant game that we knew they'd need from Griffin to have a chance in this game. He was probably sharper in this game than he has been this year, including the Knicks game. Let's face it - 35 against the Utah defense is more impressive than 44 against the New York defense.
During the 17-6 run that the Clippers used to close the first half, Griffin scored or assisted on 13 consecutive points. Basically, for four minutes, the Clippers' put the ball in Blake's hands to make something happen, and it worked every time. This is a level of execution that we really haven't seen from Griffin before. Even in his 44 point outburst against the Knicks, he was more often the recipient of passes that he finished. In other words, it was Gordon and others making plays, for which Griffin got the points. For this stretch in the second quarter, against a good defensive team, it was Griffin with the ball in his hands, triggering the Clippers offense. If he faced single coverage, he beat it for the bucket. If they doubled him, he found the open man for a layup. It was a very encouraging performance, and his 35 point night moved Blake above 20 points per game on the season. He is, for the time being, in the 20-10 club with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, and there's not much reason to think that he won't stay there the way he's been playing.
The Clippers as a team seem to be doing the big things well. Griffin is averaging 20 and 10, playing like an All Star and is the runaway Rookie of the Year at this point. Gordon is among the top scorers in the league, and is even showing signs of finding his three point stroke (he was 3 for 7 from deep tonight). Al-Farouq Aminu is among the league leaders in three point percentage. Eric Bledsoe and Aminu join Griffin on the list of the league's top 10 rookies, and the Clippers could conceivably see all three in the Rookie Challenge (which is of course in LA).
But they're not doing the little things. They're 29th in the league in free throw shooting. They're 30th in the league in three point defense. They're 27th in the league in field goal defense. They're 28th in the league in turnovers. Many of the turnovers are unforced - three seconds, bad passes, travels, that sort of thing. In this afternoon's game, they twice lost possessions on jump balls between Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap (two l's one p). Twice! Aminu is the perfect example of this dichotomy between big things and little things. He went 4 for 4 from deep, but went 0 for 4 from inside the arc, getting two of those shots blocked. He turned the ball over four times.
Utah on the other hand does all the little things. And they are tough as nails. They contest every shot. There must have been four plays tonight where the Clippers appeared to have a layup or even a dunk where the Jazz instead got a blocked shot. And if they can't block the shot, they're not afraid to take the hard foul. Look at the picture that leads this recap - Francisco Elson is grabbing Griffin, and another unseen Utah player already has ahold of his arm. Click on that picture to see the other photos from the game. In most of the plays showing the Clippers with the ball, Utah is committing a hard foul. You don't get easy shots against a Utah team because they won't allow it. The team is an extension of the coach, and Jerry Sloan the player would sooner foul out of the game than give up a layup.
If the Clippers can start doing the little things, they're going to win some games. Until then, they're going to pile up the losses.
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: I don't know if this is going to become a regular feature or not, but it seems like at least once a game there's some call that is just incomprehensible to me, and I have to wonder what the hell the officials were thinking. In this game, it came at the 4:39 mark of the 2nd quarter, and it's a doozey. I still don't know what they called. Ryan Gomes rebounded an Eric Gordon miss, and went back up himself. The ball was deflected by Deron Williams, Gomes got the ball again, and then a whistle blew. After some confusion on the court and a conference among the officials, the ball was awarded to the Jazz. Ralph and Mike seemed to think that Tony Brothers had called traveling on Gomes.
Traveling? Really? Based on when the whistle blew, I can only surmise that Brothers thought Gomes had rebounded his own airball. There are only two problems with this theory. One, the ball was clearly deflected by Williams, and two, the ball hit the rim. So, of the things that would constitute a traveling violation, this play had pretty much none of them. In other words, it was not traveling, for two straightforward and clearly evident reasons. How Brothers thought he saw traveling is beyond me. How he convinced the other officials that it was traveling is even more mysterious. How can three people, whose only job is to know the rules of basketball, come away with a traveling call on Ryan Gomes in that situation? I suppose he could have been calling some feet shuffling and not the 'passing to himself' thing, but clearly he didn't travel in that manner either. But given when the whistle blew, if traveling was the call, it pretty much had to be that Brothers thought Gomes had rebounded his own airball.
It gets better though. In the play-by-play at NBA.com, Williams has a blocked shot on the play, followed by a team rebound for Utah - which clearly didn't happen. In the box score, Williams has one blocked shot (and he didn't have any others in the game) and Gomes has zero turnovers. So the official scorer for the game was even more confused by the call than I was. Comparing what happened on the floor to the play-by-play, there's an obvious disconnect. With Gomes about to go up for a layup, the officials stopped play and awarded the ball to the Jazz - that much is certain. Why they did this is anybody's guess at this point, and according to the box score, there was no Clippers turnover. Bizarre.
Erroneous TV Graphic of the Game: Another potential ongoing feature. Now, let me say right up front that I make tons of mistakes. Some of them I catch myself, or maybe one of the citizens of Clips Nation catches it, but there are no doubt dozens, maybe hundreds more that go undetected. So yes, I live in a glass house, and yes, I'm throwing a stone.
Don't believe everything you see on the TV screen. In focusing on Brian Cook's performance from Friday, the on screen graphic said it was his first double-double since March 4, 2004. That would be pretty darn interesting - almost seven years between double-doubles. Too bad it was completely wrong. I looked up that very thing in my recap of the Suns game, and Cook's last double double was March 4, 2007 - a pretty big difference. In fact, of Cook's seven career double-doubles prior to Friday, six of them happened AFTER March 4, 2004. Now, clearly someone just typed 03/04/04 instead of 03/04/07 somewhere along the way, so it's an honest mistake. But it's a pretty big mistake.