When Jamal Crawford made a three with a little less than 4 minutes left in the third quarter, I knew the Clippers were in trouble. Sure, they still had a ten point lead even after Crawford's triple, but the Hawks have made so many big shots in their recent victories over the Clippers, I've come to recognize the signs. Crawford's make would get him going, which would get Joe Johnson going, and the Hawks would win the game. I knew it. I KNEW IT. I didn't actually realize that Josh Smith would join the party, but I knew what the outcome would be.
The Hawks can't possibly play this way against other teams, or they wouldn't have 14 losses. But in crunch time against the Clippers, they just seem to make shot after shot. The defense hardly matters. They make difficult shot after difficult shot. In this game, the Clippers outscored the Hawks 46 to 30 in the paint. Usually such a decisive interior advantage in the paint is more than enough to ensure victory. But the Hawks beat the Clippers making jumper after jumper. Over the final 16 minutes of the game, beginning with that Crawford three, the Hawks scored 49 points. Over those final 16 minutes, they made 15 of 20 field goal attempts, including 4 threes. That's a shooting percentage of 75%, and an effective field goal percentage of 85%. And that was all almost exclusively on jump shots.
But I'm tempted to say that the Clippers lost this game in the first half. As much as the Hawks dominated the second half, the Clippers were just as dominant in the first. But the Hawks outscored the Clippers by 20 after halftime (by 22, 49 to 27 over the final 16 minutes), while the Clippers only built an eleven point margin before the break. In a half where LA outshot Atlanta 61% to 32%, it's inexcusable, and almost inexplicable, to lead by merely eleven. Five second quarter turnovers (nine in the half, and 19 in the game) were the main culprit in keeping the Hawks close. Atlanta actually won the second quarter by two points, despite the fact that they played abysmally. And the Clippers turnovers were almost all unforced - two Randy Foye walks, and several balls either thrown or kicked out of bounds.
It didn't help matters that Eric Gordon had easily his worst game of the season. First half foul trouble may have disrupted his rhythm, but the bottom line is that EJ finished the game 3 for 14, scoring only 10 points. He was 1 for 9 in the second half, and he missed all five of his three point attempts in the game. Strangely, coach Vinny Del Negro stuck with Gordon stubbornly, playing him all 24 minutes of the second half. It was as if VDN was hoping that any minute EJ would snap out of it, so he had to leave him in to take advantage of the deluge of points once he flipped the switch. But he switch remained unflipped. Meanwhile, Randy Foye, who was plus 14 in 11 first half minutes, never got off the bench while the wheels were coming off. Usually I'm a big supporter of sticking with the main gun and letting him shoot his way out of his troubles, but it was pretty obvious that Gordon was simply off, and Foye had been very effective in the first half, so it would have made sense to at least give Foye a look in the second.
At any rate, this is becoming a habit. The team builds a big lead in the first half, only to forget how to play during halftime and to lose that lead and ultimately the game. Everything that the Clippers were doing right in the first half just evaporated in the second. Baron Davis had four assists and zero turnovers in the first eight minutes of the game - he had one assist and two turnovers in the other 21 minutes he played. The Clippers were getting dunks and layups and wide open jumpers in the first half - they struggled to find shots in the second. For some reason, when opponents turn up the intensity, the Clippers can't seem to respond. The offense bogs down and the defense can't get stops.
So they've opened their five game home stand with two straight losses, blowing double digit leads in each of them. These are the growing pains of a young team; but it seems like it's time to grow up already.