As you might imagine, in the 15 consecutive road games that the Clippers have lost to the Jazz, there have been some narrow escapes for Utah. During the 04-05 season, the Clippers lost two games in Salt Lake City by a total of 3 points. In the second of those losses, Bobby Simmons had a chance to win the game at the buzzer on a layup which he just flat out missed. It was such a noteworthy game, that even though it pre-dates my career as a blogger, I actually saved an email I wrote about it at the time.
The following season, 05-06, the Clippers tied the game in the final seconds. Some rookie, I think his name was Deron Williams, came down the court and scored to give the Jazz the win. So some things just don't change.Of all the Clippers-Jazz meetings in Utah, none can compare to last night's classic. The Clippers built a big first half lead, as high as 18 at one point, and still held a 16 point advantage at halftime. But as has been the case for much of the young season, a terrible start to the second half changed the complexion of the game completely. Utah opened the third quarter on a 17-3 run to cut the lead to 2, and it was close the rest of the way.
But instead of slipping away quietly once the Jazz took the lead as one might expect, the Clippers battled back into the game on multiple occasions. Utah enjoyed their biggest lead of the game, 91-84, with a mere 65 seconds left. The idea of the Clippers catching them, while mathematically possible, seemed unlikely to say the least - particularly when you consider that two of their top guards weren't even playing, and rookie sensation Blake Griffin had fouled out a few moments earlier. What do you need, down 7 with 65 seconds left? Well, you need a quick three, a stop, a quick two, a stop and another quick two. That's all. How hard could that be? That's what has to happen if you're going to come back without fouling. And that's exactly what happened. And it was almost entirely due to Eric Gordon, on both ends of the floor.
First he drove to the basket, drew a foul and made the layup for a three point lead. Clippers down 4. Then he and Eric Bledose combined for a steal, with Gordon converting the resulting layup. Clippers down 2 with 36 seconds left. On the next Jazz possession, Gordon forced a 24 second violation, almost single-handedly. He pressured Deron Williams on the ball, until Williams got the ball to C.J. Miles. On the dribble handoff, Gordon and Bledsoe switched, with Gordon remaining on the ball, and he stayed attached to Miles until he shot (and airballed) a pressured 20 footer at the shot clock buzzer. It was 24 seconds of pressure defense from one player, reminiscent of Gordon's play against Turkey in the Gold Medal game of the World Championships over the summer. With possession and 12 seconds left, now down 2, everyone knew who was going to the ball, but it didn't matter. Gordon turned the corner on the high screen in a flash, and went all the way to the rim for the tomahawk jam, as emphatic a game tying basket as you will ever see. The game was now tied, but Gordon wasn't finished - he once again played the defensive star, stuffing Williams jumper attempt in the final seconds to force OT.
The Clippers never trailed in the first overtime, and had a chance to win on the final possession. Gordon made a great move, freeing himself on a step through after pump faking his defender into the air, but he left his bank shot short and the game went into a second overtime.
When EJ re-injured a left shoulder stinger that had occurred in the first half, it seemed as if the Clippers would finally have to succumb. And when the Jazz took a 6 point lead with 52 seconds left, it seemed all be inevitable. What do you need, down 6 with 52 seconds left? Well, you need a three, a stop, and another three. That's all. How hard could that be? Once again, they managed to get exactly what they needed, as Rasual Butler hit threes on consecutive possessions (an unlikely sequence made even more so when you consider that the Clippers were 3 for 18 from deep before Butler connected back to back).
Unfortunately for LA, as was the case back in 2006, Williams took the inbound pass and went coast to coast for the game winning layup. (It goes without saying that had Gordon not been injured, he would have been defending Williams, and the result might have been different). With about 7 seconds still on the clock, but no timeouts left, the Clippers pushed the ball up, and eventually Craig Smith got a very makeable shot at the buzzer, but was unable to convert.
So it goes down as a loss, and the Clippers drop to 1-6. But it's not just a loss.
It's just one game, but it was a major step forward in the development of Eric Gordon. It's difficult to overstate just how impressive he was in the final moments of regulation, right up until the point at which he was injured. He scored 13 of the Clippers final 14 points in regulation, including three traditional three point plays. He even made another driving layup with contact down the stretch, but that basket was nullified by an offensive foul - probably the correct call, but a symptom of a guy being forced to play one on five more than anything else. In the first OT, he made one basket and assisted on another, contributing to 4 of the Clippers 6 points. In the fourth quarter and overtime combined, he scored 6 baskets and assisted on 2 - and those were the only 8 baskets the Clippers made during that time. He also went 9 for 9 from the line during the game, a very welcome change given his struggles shooting free throws this season. He still hasn't found his three point shot, missing all 6 of his attempts in Utah. Assuming that he hasn't suddenly gone from being a great three point shooter to a terrible three point shooter and that eventually he's going to revert to his career mean from deep, he's going to be even more unstoppable when those long range bomps start falling. The Clippers have, for years and years, been searching for a go to scorer in difficult situations. I'm not saying that this one game proves that Gordon is now that guy, but ask yourself what SportsCenter would be doing with those final 65 seconds of footage had that been LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade, scoring on one end and defending on the other? I'm just saying. We have to wait and see now how bad the shoulder injury is - EJ seems to think he'll play Tuesday against the Hornets.
The last thing to point out about this game is the series of strange close calls and plays from the fourth quarter on that, in a double overtime game, could each have changed the final outcome.
- Gordon was 9 for 9 from the free throw line, but on one fourth quarter trip he only got one point, as a lane violation negated the second make.
- On a Jazz possession with just over 5 minutes left, the Clippers played 24 seconds of terrific defense, forcing CJ Miles to shoot a running three under severe pressure - the ball went in and was originally ruled to be before the shot clock buzzer (eliciting a stream of expletives from ClipperSteve - just the Clippers luck to play great defense and give up three points!) However, under the new instant replay rules that allow refs to review plays at the next stoppage, provided that the result can be accurately 'unwound', the refs did exactly that, and took the three points back off the board - an obviously huge reversal in a close game. (By 'unwound', I mean that, as in this case, nothing would have to be replayed or adjusted other than the score. The result of the play, whether the shot was on time or late, was Clippers ball out of bounds, so the intervening plays between the make and the review were unaffected, other than the score on the scoreboard. This, by the way, is a great rule, and something I've been arguing for for years. The prior rules for instant replay always mandated a strictly enforced set of situations, inevitably leaving obvious cases where replay could and should be applied, but where the rules prohibited it's use.)
- Tangentially related to the above, the Clippers came out in a zone on a subsequent defensive possession. For most of the fourth, with Gordon locking up Williams, the Clippers' man to man defense was very effective. Why they decided to go to a zone at that point was a bit mysterious. Paul Millsap got a relatively easy layup on that possession, and the Clippers went back to the man defense the rest of the way.
- The instant replay rule worked against the Clippers in the second OT, when a possession originally awarded to the Clippers was given to the Jazz after it was correctly determined via replay that Kaman had touched the ball last.
- The officiating for the most part was very good, and it's difficult to complain about calls favoring the home team in this one. For instance, it would have been incredibly simple to call a foul on Gordon blocking Williams jumper at the end of regulation. It would have been the wrong call, but it certainly would not have been an unusual call. Having said that, on back to back possessions in the first OT, Kaman blocked an Al Jefferson shot and was called for a foul, while Jefferson blocked Kaman and was not. To my eyes, Kaman's block looked clean as a whistle, while it looked like Jefferson got a lot of wrist. I would have thought, in a close game, that neither would have been called a foul, but with Utah struggling to score during that stretch, the call against Kaman was huge.
- Butler was the hero for making back to back threes, but he was the goat moments before for committing a flagrant foul on Andrei Kirilenko. In a game in which no team had led by more than two points for almost nine minutes of overtime competition, Butler's play gave the Jazz two free throws and the ball. By the time the Clippers had the ball back, they were down 6, and only his own heroics got them back to even.
I guess it says something about how exciting this game was, that I haven't even mentioned Blake Griffin's 16 point, 17 rebound performance, or Chris Kaman's 23 points, until the final paragraph. Yeah, it was an exciting game.