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Clippers 108 - Utah 104 - Can't Do Anything the Easy Way

The Clippers insist on making things difficult.  Playing one of the absolutely hottest teams in the NBA, a team they rarely if ever beat, they led wire-to-wire to win the game.  And yet it is the near complete meltdown in the final 2.5 minutes that we'll all remember, the 150 seconds that gave ulcers to our ulcers. 

The Clippers led 99-84 with under 4 minutes to go and then again 101-89 at the 2.5 minute mark, Lawler's Law supposedly slamming the door at that point.  But the Jazz went on a 12-2 run over the next two minutes and 15 seconds, with Deron Williams at the line for two free throws to tie the game with 16 seconds left.  Amazingly, he missed them both, the Clippers made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch and won the game.

How did the Clippers almost give away a 12 point lead in 150 seconds?  It started with some plain old missed shots.  Rasual Butler missed an open three, Baron missed a 15 footer.  The Utah comeback was also abetted by several three point trips.  A Kyle Korver three pointer had trimmed the 15 point lead earlier.  Then conventional and-ones by Boozer and Williams saved Utah an extra trip when they scored 12 on only five possessions.  But the biggest problem was that LA was allowing Utah to score so quickly and easily.  It's tempting to say that the Clippers made a major miscalculation in burning clock for three straight possessions during the Utah surge.  And while it's true that holding the ball for most of the shot clock definitely got the Clippers out of sync, resulting in a buch of empty trips, the game would have been over anyway had the Clippers gotten a single stop, or even required Utah to use any clock themselves. 

During the 12-2 run, Utah's five straight scores came on possessions of 9, 10, 7, 3 and 3 seconds - 12 points in 32 seconds of offense.  That's not acceptable.  If your strategy is to nurse a lead at the end of a game, one of the requirements has to be to make the opposition work for their scores.  Obviously Utah was pushing the pace, desperate to score.  But you have to slow them down some.  Instead, the Clippers were somewhere between inefficient and completely lost.  For instance, when Baron drove to the basket at 1:10, Eric Gordon should have circled back to cover the backcourt.  Instead, EJ camped in the corner, looking for a kick out that never came, and Kirilenko got a run out dunk.  If you want to lose your lead, by all means give the other team dunks.  Perhaps more maddening was the Jazz possession around 1:30.  Kaman is supposed to be defending Millsap, and somehow loses him 5 seconds into the possession.  Then, when Millsap receives the pass and Kaman sees him all alone, he barely seems interested in recovering to him - wide open 15 footer. 

See how this team makes me crazy?  The biggest win in almost two months, and the Clippers have somehow turned me into a nag.

On the plus side, the Clippers played extremely well for over 45 minutes, well enough in fact that they were able to withstand 150 seconds of brain freeze.  Baron Davis outplayed All Star Deron Williams for most of the game, and was particularly good on defense.  I've said before that I tend to gauge Chris Kaman more by his rebounding (which has been pretty good lately).  Likewise, I gauge Baron Davis by his defense.  When he begins to mail it in, you see it first on the defensive end.  But in three recent games, he's been good to great on defense - he's blocked the shots of Stephen Jackson, Tyreke Evans and Deron Williams this week alone.  That's impressive.  All season, the Clippers have put Eric Gordon on the opposition's top perimeter player - until this week.  Did Kim Hughes challenge Baron Davis to step up to the challenge on defense?  However it came about, it's a welcome site, with significant positive implications for next season.

Drew Gooden continued his strong play since arriving in LA, scoring 19 points on 9 shots and grabbing 11 rebounds.  I was hopeful going into the game that he'd be a better matchup for the Clippers against Carlos Boozer, and indeed he seemed to be.  Boozer still managed to score 20 points on 7 for 12 shooting, but Gooden limited his touches and most importantly kept him off the offensive glass. 

Eric Gordon shot well, making 4 of 6 threes, including three in an early fourth quarter surge in which he scored 13 straight Clipper points.  If Gordon was so hot, why didn't the Clippers go to him down the stretch?  Because Utah put Kirilenko on EJ at about the six minute mark, and the kid never saw the ball again.  (AK47 is an amazing defensive weapon - and it's quite a sign of respect that Utah chose to use him on Gordon in the fourth.)  Gordon finished with a game-high 24.

Importantly, the Clippers responded each and every time the Jazz made a push to get back into the game.  In particular, after the Clippers had built the lead to 14 in the first half, Utah went on an 11-0 run that featured 9 points by Kyle Korver, including a highly improbable 4 point play.  It's easy, and not unusual, for that kind of play (Utah had just been through a disaster of a possession and the shot clock was essentially expired when Korver threw the ball at the basket) to spark the trailing team and demoralize the leaders, and indeed it appeared at first to do just that.  But after the lead had been cut to three, the Clippers responded with a 7-0 run of their own to push it right back out to double digits, where they kept it more or less until... well, we've already covered all that stuff.  That particular response featured a healthy dose of Travis Outlaw, who needs more minutes if you ask me.

So in the end, it's an LA win over a very good Utah team.  It's easily the best win of the Kim Hughes era and it stretches the Clippers home record to a not too shabby 18-12.  On the season, the Clippers now have wins over Denver, Boston, LA and Utah, a fairly impressive group of scalps.  With Phoenix and Oklahoma City coming to town this week, they'll have chances to add to the collection.

We always talk about the calls that went against the team when we lose, let's talk about the calls that went the Clippers way in this game.  The team's only bucket of the final 2 minutes came after Kaman set a nasty pick on Williams, freeing Baron up for a 15 footer.  It could EASILY have been called an offensive foul, and probably should have, although I'm not a big fan of that call unless the screener is moving.  Kaman was in position - but he clearly gave Williams a little extra to send him sprawling.

The other big break was the foul called against Baron on Williams' layup at 16 seconds.  How is that a break for the Clippers, especially considering that the replay appeared to show Baron getting a clean block?  Well, Kyle Korver was all alone to clean up the miss for a layup to tie the game.  Instead, Williams went to the line where he missed them both.