The Clippers for years have had one of the league's worst records in close games. Games decided by five or fewer, three or fewer, one point games, you name it, the Clippers have not excelled. Tonight, they get credit for a one point victory, but this was not really a close game that they won - it was a close game that they very nearly lost.
The Clippers had a seven point lead with 41 seconds left. From there, they gave up a traditional three point play to Derrick Rose, turned the ball over on the inbounds play, gave up a dunk to Carlos Boozer, and finally fouled Rose in the act of shooting with 0.8 seconds left on the clock. Only the fact that Rose missed the second free throw kept the game from going into overtime, where Chicago would have had all the momentum. I suppose if you want to put a positive spin on the final seconds, you could praise the Clippers' free throw defense.
But although the final 41 seconds were a disaster, the rest of the game the Clippers withstood whatever the Bulls threw at them. On several occasions where it seemed as if the Bulls had seized the upper hand, the Clippers regrouped and regained control. LA built a nine point lead early, only to watch the Bulls go up by three. The Clippers then used a strong second quarter to built the lead back up to eight. When Chicago scored the first six of the third period, the Clippers regrouped with six straight of their own. And when Rose tried to take over the game, the Clippers played through the adversity and maintained their lead. So we can give some credit to the Clippers for having that lead still at seven in the final minute. As it happens, they needed every bit of it.
The Clippers clearly caught a break tonight against a Bulls team playing their first game without the injured Joakim Noah. The front court rotation was a shambles, and foul trouble plus a Taj Gibson concussion didn't help matters. The biggest problem for the Bulls was on the defensive end - Noah is so long, and so quick and so active that he erases a lot of mistakes committed by other defenders. Tonight, Baron Davis was consistently able to penetrate into the heart of the Bulls' defense and either get a layup, or find a teammate for an easy score. The Clippers scored 100 points and shot over 50% playing on road on the second night of back to backs. I don't think that happens if Noah is playing.
The rest of the troubles for the Bulls front court were very much a byproduct of Blake Griffin of the Clippers. Chicago tried three defenders on Griffin tonight. Taj Gibson played very little before getting hurt because he picked up three fouls in nine minutes. Omer Asik picked up three in 22 minutes. Kurt Thomas picked up six in 16 minutes. That's 12 fouls on three opposition bigs, and it's no coincidence that they were trying to slow down Griffin. Carlos Boozer also picked up five fouls in the game.
Blake finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists. He is entering that rarefied air where a great game is almost a disappointment. After all, he's averaging 12.3 rebounds per game - this game actually hurt his average a little. Oh, it was his 15th consecutive double double. Ho hum.
For the second game in a row, the Clippers got double figure scoring from five different players. Prior to these last two, it seemed as if Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin were out there by themselves. Suddenly, the Clippers are looking like a relatively deep and balanced team, even without Chris Kaman or Brian Cook tonight, and with Randy Foye still limited by a hamstring injury. (The bad news from a team balance and depth standpoint is that rookie Al-Farouq Aminu got his first DNP of the season tonight. I'm not sure where that came from.)
Baron Davis had a terrific game, with 16 points, seven assists and only one turnover in 32 minutes. Amazingly, he lost an assist when Griffin simply mishandled one of his lob passes, which dismayed Blake and Baron and the crowd at the United Center. Baron is clearly LOVING playing with Griffin. The ClipperWidow was stuck on the couch with me watching the game, and she was trying to figure out what was different. After awhile she said, "I know what it is... Baron is smiling. I'm not used to that." An astute observation.
Surprisingly, the team has gotten into the win column on the road even while Eric Gordon has struggled on this trip. After scoring at least 19 points in 24 of his first 25 games this season, he's had 16, 15 and 15 on this trip. To make matters worse, he was a turnover machine in Philadelphia with five and tonight with seven (!). Still, he'll take the wins over the personal accomplishments. He's still a major threat out there, which is opening up things for other players. If he can clean up his ball handling issues, he'll be fine.
The Clippers seemed to be dead in the water as they left LA for this three game trip. After their abysmal second half in Philadelphia, even more so. But things can change pretty quickly, and their first back to back road wins since November 2007 now have the team returning to LA on a high note. With winnable games against the Wolves, Rockets and revamped Suns at home, followed by a roadie in Sacramento, the Clippers could actually get on a little winning streak here.
A quick word on depth: The citizens of Clips Nation obsess about every little thing Clippers related. Every roster spot is precious; every front office move is scrutinized. That's as it should be. We're a Clippers community. This is a Clippers blog, after all. Where else can you obsess about these things? Many citizens were less than thrilled with roster moves that brought the likes of Brian Cook and Jarron Collins to the team. These are not the most exciting guys to have around, I would agree. But look at what Chicago was reduced to tonight. With Noah and Gibson out, Kurt Thomas played 16 minutes (he had played 13 on the season up to this point), and Brian Scalabrine played 3. Brian Cook and Jarron Collins have limited charms, but they're infinitely preferable to Kurt Thomas (at 38) and Brian Scalabrine (at any age), aren't they? The point is, with 30 teams in the NBA, the 12th through 14th guys on your bench are bound to be limited in some way. Chicago seems particularly thin in the front court, though I thought Asik played well and can't really figure out why Thibodeau ignored him down the stretch.
Random Moment: Carlos Boozer is LOUD. You can here his voice on every play he's out there. My favorite was in the first quarter, shortly after Asik had checked in. Asik was defending Griffin on the right block, where Blake loves to fake right and spin right. Boozer was on the weak side, coaching Asik: "Watch the spin, watch the spin." When Blake executed the spin perfectly, leaving Asik clutching at air, you could once again here Boozer's voice: "Day-ammm."
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: I wasn't crazy about the foul call at the end. No one really talked about it, but if you watch the replay, Rasual goes pretty much straight up. He's entitled to his space, and the rule of verticality says that if he goes straight up, he's not committing a foul. Rose had nowhere to go on that play, and while there was contact, as I said I think Butler was vertical, so I don't like to see the refs bailing Rose out like that, especially on such a crucial play. I would have liked it a lot less had Rose made that second free throw, I can tell you that. It's hard to complain much though, as the Clippers seemed to get the benefit of the whistles through most of the game, which is not something they experience much, especially on the road.
At any rate, that wasn't the bizarre whistle of the game; it was not particularly unusual. Instead I'm going to go with one that once again demonstrates the lack of consistency in NBA officiating. In the third quarter, with the Clippers trying to break the game open, the Clippers got a steal and Griffin and Gordon were on a 2 on 1 break. Blake looked to pass ahead to Gordon, and Derrick Rose bit on the look, after which Griffin kept the ball with a clear path to a dunk. And Dick Bavetta called Blake for a discontinued dribble.
Now, I understand what Bavetta was saying there, but come on - there's got to be SOME consistency in the game, right? In reality, Griffin's dribble was no more a violation than about half of the dribbles in every NBA game. It was completely normal by today's NBA standards. Just because it caused Rose to bite on a pass fake doesn't make it a discontinued dribble. I mean, I watched Carmelo Anthony execute a one handed crossover the other day. How is that even possible within the rules as written? Answer - it's not. But the NBA almost never calls it, and Bavetta should never have called this one tonight. The fact that it also eliminated a breakaway dunk just makes it tragic. The NBA should fine Bavetta for interfering with a highlight.