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Houston Rockets 96 - Los Angeles Clippers 83 - An Ugly, Ugly Game

First things first. This was Blake Griffin's worst game in at least two months. Whether he was tired from the back to back games, tired from the number of minutes and games he's played in the very heavy schedule of the last two weeks, whether he was out of sorts because he was in pain from the elbow contusion he suffered in Dallas or he's hit the proverbial rookie wall; whatever the reason, he was by far the least active I've seen him all season. Chuck Hayes had a lot to do with Griffin's struggles to be sure (more on that later), but a lot of it was on Blake. He was outworked for rebounds on several occasions, stood flat footed and waited for a rebound to come to him allowing Luis Scola to tip it away once, and allowed Kyle Lowry to dribble right past him in transition once. In other words, there were multiple plays throughout the game where Blake Griffin was outhustled by his opponent. Blake has set the bar very high on the season so far - it's totally unfair that I should be shocked by the idea that he might EVER be outhustled. But the simple fact is that constant hustle has been a big part of his success this season, and it was noticeably absent tonight, for whatever reason.

Blake Griffin played poorly. Eric Gordon of course didn't play at all. Baron Davis played poorly as well, perhaps the worst he's played all season (he missed a season high 12 shots). So it's little wonder that the Clippers lost the game. How could it possibly be otherwise?

And yet they could easily have won. Because, truth be told, the Rockets' best players played poorly as well. Leading scorer Kevin Martin was only 3 for 11 and played a mere 21 minutes. Second leading scorer Luis Scola was terrific in the first half when he scored 14 points, but invisible in the second half when he scored only two. The Clippers lost the game during a dismal fourth quarter during which they were outscored 26 to 10. Martin and Scola combined for exactly zero points in the fourth, in a total of two and a half minutes on the court. So the team that beat the Clippers in the decisive final period basically didn't include the Rockets best players.

This might be an interesting discussion topic for another day, by the way. No matter how bad a game Eric Gordon or Blake Griffin might be having, Clips Nation would be absolutely livid if they didn't play in the fourth quarter. I daresay even if the team won, there would be quite an outcry. Of course it would never happen, because Vinny Del Negro wouldn't conceive of holding them out. Are Patrick Patterson and Courtney Lee that much better than the corresponding backups on the Clippers? I don't know. It's incredibly gutsy of Rick Adelman to do it, and you have to give him credit tonight since the Rockets got the win with their best players riding the pine.

The Clippers entered the fourth quarter with a three point lead, and before they scored their first points over six minutes later, they were behind by nine. The team missed their first 15 shots in the quarter, and they looked like they were playing in wet cement. And while the Rockets were playing good defense, many of the misses were just that - misses. Of the 15 errant shots to start the quarter, by my count about 8 of them were layups. Blake Griffin missed not one but two putbacks, Baron Davis missed layup after layup. To my eyes, this looked like a dog tired team, with no legs left at all.

I have to say that the referees were pretty terrible tonight, on both sides of the ball. It's not exactly my favorite crew; I've never been a big fan of Ken Mauer, and David Jones' past work has earned him the moniker fat, bald assclown (F-BAC for short) here at Clips Nation (I have no particular problem with Courtney Kirkland). And like I said, they weren't good in this game. They somehow managed to call the game both too loose and too tight at the same time, if that's possible. During the Clippers' meltdown which began in the final two minutes of the third quarter and continued throughout the fourth, the refs sure weren't doing them any favors. Over the course of about 9 minutes of game time, there were six fouls called on the Clippers, none on the Rockets, and many of them were suspect. On Ike Diogu's travel at the end of the third quarter, the refs missed the fact that he was pushed in the back, which is what caused him to shuffle his feet. On the offensive foul they called on Diogu seconds later for getting his elbow near Scola's face, well, puh-leeze, did he even touch the guy? I mean, sure, you need to call fouls when guys swing elbows, but this one seemed more like Ike having an elbow. Meanwhile, the Rockets are playing some pretty aggressive defense, and the Clippers are missing 15 straight shots, and there's not a single Rocket foul called during that time. That's pretty amazing.

The strangest call in the stretch (and I guess we will forgo the bizarre whistle of the game feature tonight) was when they awarded two free throws to Courtney Lee on Randy Foye's foul at 10:41. Sure it was a foul, but in what universe was Courtney Lee in the act of shooting? The ball literally never leaves his hands. He's still holding the ball after the foul is called and the play is stopped. He hands the ball to the ref. How is that a shooting foul? He didn't shoot. I mean seriously, he didn't shoot. Don't we usually get into esoteric debates about the continuation rule, where and when exactly the foul occurs and the question of whether the player takes another dribble before he shoots or was in one continuous act of shooting? The common theme in that discussion is that the guy ACTUALLY SHOOTS THE BALL! How can you possibly call a shooting foul with the ball never leaves the players hands? (It's a trick question - you can't.)

While we're ranting, let's go back to just before this spate of Clipper fouls began, to Lowry fouling Al-Farouq Aminu with 2:01 remaining in the third. Lowry grabs AFA as he's trying to shoot, he never gets his arms up, the ball bounces off the floor and goes into the basket. Why would that not be a basket? If it was a shooting foul, and if no one else touched the ball after it left AFA's hands, why does the basket not count? The ball is allowed to go in the basket off a bounce - that's still two points. And if the call was a shooting foul, then it was a live ball. So why wouldn't that basket count? Anyone care to peruse the minutiae of the NBA rule book on that bad boy?

Oh, what the hell, since I'm on a roll, if you've got the game on the DVR go and look at the play around 4:35 of the fourth quarter. It's just a tremendous traveling violation - really outstanding, even by NBA standards. Lowry picks up his dribble and comes to a jump stop near the free throw line. Unable to get off a shot, he changes his pivot foot about three times before finally passing the ball. I ran it back and watched it a couple of times. I mean, I knew it was a travel in real time, but you have to watch it in slow motion to really appreciate it. He actually takes five steps without a travel being called. Stupendous travel, one of the best I've ever seen.

But I digress. Let's get back to Chuck Hayes. Hayes is a tremendous defender. He's strong as an ox, he's got deceptively good (even great) lateral quickness, and he works his butt off. He moves his feet well, never gives up on any play, has quick hands and is one of the best in the NBA at raking the ball as the offensive player is making his move. But if the old chestnut that you could call a foul on any given play in an NBA game is true at all, then it's doubly true of Chuck Hayes. He's very physical, and there is body contact - a lot of it - on every play in which he is involved. The crew seemed to set the tone early in this one. In the first quarter, as Griffin made his move across the middle, Hayes just blatantly bodied him out of the lane. Essentially just ran through Griffin, knocking him off balance. This was the play where Del Negro was screaming right in the nearest official's ear and Ralph and Mike said they were surprised he didn't get a technical foul. It was an obvious foul - laughably so - and I have no idea how three different officials could possibly have ignored it. Maybe because he didn't use his hands at all they just missed it; I don't know. But it set the tone for sure; Hayes was going to be allowed to body Griffin as much as he liked all night.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist at all; I think the level of organization required for NBA refs to systematically manipulate games without it becoming public knowledge is way beyond their capacities. BUT, if an officiating crew, perhaps feeling that a certain rookie was getting a little too cocky, decided they wanted to bring said rookie down a peg or two, it might look a lot like this game. If Chuck Hayes picks up a couple of early fouls and Griffin gets to the line a few more times, this game might have gone very differently. But if Hayes is given a little more freedom to manhandle Griffin, it can clearly have an impact on the game. Hayes, it should be noted, is something of a fouling machine over the course of his career, one of only ten active players with more than 5000 career minutes to average over 5 fouls per 36 minutes. So it's statistically surprising, if nothing else, that while assigned to a high scoring player who's a poor free throw shooter, Hayes should pick up only three fouls in 38 minutes. I'm just saying.

But there was clearly more than just Chuck Hayes wrong with Blake Griffin tonight. And if it's related to fatigue, it does not bode well for the Odyssey next month.