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Back from Vacation - The Clippers in Perspective at the New Year

First of all, let me express my sincere thanks to Citizen Zhiv for his work during my absence. His posts were beyond outstanding. I can only imagine that there are more than a few citizens who are disappointed at the prospect of having to read my ramblings again after a week of Zhiv's insights.

(Let it be known that Citizen Zhiv has carte blanche to post as often as he likes on Clips Nation, so I'm not holding him down. He's kind enough to step up when I'm away, but hopefully we can say enough nice things about him that he'll continue frequent contributions to the front page, even when I'm around.)

I drove up to Tahoe the day after Christmas, as the Clippers were playing the Suns. My wife's parents cabin doesn't have internet access or even a TV service, so I didn't know anything about the results of that game right away.

As it happens, the cabin is on the north side of Tahoe, near interstate 80 a few miles west of Truckee. As such, it's only about 90 minutes from Sacramento, where the Clippers were playing Monday night. There happened to be a break in the weather Monday, so on a whim I asked my nephew if he wanted to go to the game with me. He said yes, and to my surprise his parents, my brother and sister-in-law, said they wanted to go also.

Unfortunately, we got a slightly later start than we wanted, and although the roads were clear of snow, we hadn't accounted for traffic leaving the ski resorts, which caused us to lose time on the 80. Even so, we were doing OK and were probably going to arrive for the tip when we hit Roseville. For some reason, at 6:45 on the Monday after Christmas, traffic came to a standstill.

As we watched the clock tick past 7 PM while going essentially nowhere, my brother had the idea of getting off the freeway and watching the game at a sports bar. Since it seemed likely that we were going to miss the first quarter, and we needed to eat anyway, that's what we did. The bottom line is that I actually watched the Clippers-Kings game at some dive in Roseville, and even got to shoot some pool at the same time. Of course, we could have driven to a place in Truckee to watch the game and saved about 3 hours in the car, but that's beside the point.

So I watched the Kings game as it was happening, and then of course I watched the Suns and Jazz games on the DVR after I got back to Long Beach.

There's a sort of inconsistent consistency emerging in the team. They're competitive in almost every game, which is a very good thing. Over the last month and a half, in their last 21 games, they've lost only two by double digits. And in each of those two losses, a 12 point defeat against the Jazz and a 14 point loss to the Sixers, they led at halftime. That competitive streak in the last 21 is in stark contrast to the beginning of the season, when the team suffered seven double digit defeats while going 1-12.

But despite being consistently competitive in each game, they are wildly inconsistent in the games themselves. Several times they've dug a huge hole early in the game and then had to spend the rest of the game vainly attempting to dig their way out. Against Phoenix (down 42-17 in the first quarter), Orlando (down 40-14 early in the second quarter), and Houston (down 27-11 after only eight minutes) the team opened the game in a funk and were unable to recover despite valiant efforts. They've also done the opposite number, opening big leads, only to watch them disappear. In just their last two losses, the team built first half leads of 16 points over the Hawks and 12 points over the Jazz, then emerged as a different team, a mojo-less team, in the second half and watched the game slip away. So in almost all of their recent games, there have been long stretches during which the Clippers have significantly outplayed their opponents. Unfortunately, many of those games have nonetheless resulted in losses, because there have been equally long stretches where they've been outplayed even worse.

During the pre-game of the Utah game, Prime Ticket showed a graphic of the team's record in games decided by two points or fewer. It showed a sequence of four losses, followed by a couple of recent wins. I know that the implication was that the Clippers are learning how to win close games, but come on. Those recent victories over the Bulls and Kings may indeed feature a margin of a single point each, but neither could be considered indicative of anything positive in terms of winning close ones. Quite the opposite in fact - the Clippers narrowly escaped defeat despite themselves, when good players missed free throws on the game's final possession. In Chicago, the Bulls used an 8-1 run in the final 68 seconds to erase all but a single point of an 8 point Clippers lead, while in Sacramento the Kings ran off 8 straight to eliminate a 9 point lead in the final 3 minutes. A similar nightmare unfolded in the Phoenix game, where the Suns went on a 9-0 run to close a 10 point lead down to a single point in the game's final minutes.

What does all of this mean? Well, clearly, there's still plenty of work to be done. Five wins in the last eight games is nice, and 9-11 in the last 20 is infinitely preferable to 1-13 in the first 14. The team has shown that they can play with anyone, and that they will compete every night. But they remain incredibly inconsistent across the 48 minutes, and uncommonly shakey in the final minutes. The positive spin on these problems is that as a very young team, the issues are somewhat to be expected, and the team should improve both in consistency and in late-game situations as they get more experience.

The Clippers finished the 2011 calendar year with a record of 25 and 58 spread across parts of two seasons. They're 0-1 in 2011, but It seems safe to say that the immediate is going to be better than that. But there doubtless remain many growing pains to be experienced.