Three-and-a-half confounding quarters of missed shot after missed shot mercifully came to an end when Eric Gordon's step-back jumper dropped softly through the net with 5:37 left to play Friday night, narrowing the lead to 95-91. Gordon, who had gone scoreless - or 0-for-11 from the field - until that point, would go on to convert two driving layups, drawing a foul on the second and making the subsequent free throw, but even with the game close in the final moments, Gordon's awakening simply came too late in the Clippers' 112-104 loss to the Lakers.
In reality, it should have been far uglier for the Clippers. With their leading scorer off to the worst performance of his career, Mo Williams chose the perfect time to have his best shooting game of the year. Williams started the night 9-for-11 from the field, including 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, time and again coming up with tough jumpers to keep the Clippers in the game. Only the lack of production from Gordon, combined with a subpar effort from two other starters in Chris Kaman and Ryan Gomes, ultimately proved insurmountable.
Perhaps even more telling than Gordon's disappearance were these tidbits from Williams' final line: a +/- of minus-15 and five turnovers (next to six assists). There are outside factors and surrounding noise to consider - and the Clippers would have been blown out without Williams' hot shooting - but such numbers suggest that Williams just isn't meant to be his team's No. 1 option. Blake Griffin was decent, putting up 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting (just six rebounds, though), and Randy Foye, Al-Farouq Aminu and Craig Smith combined for 31 points off the bench, but this game showed that the Clippers have little shot at winning when Gordon goes 3-for-14 and scores seven points, even despite a season-high 30 from Williams.
With all that said, the Clippers still managed to make this a competitive contest. After trailing by as much as 13 late in the third quarter, they went on an 18-7 run to cut the Lakers' lead to a single possession in the final frame. I actually found myself wondering how the Clippers had managed to recover from the early shock of Gordon's effective absence to climb back into this one. The Lakers were winning nearly every statistical category - they were shooting better, getting to the free-throw line more often, bullying the Clippers on the offensive glass - and yet the Clippers, behind some impressive shot-making by Foye (eight of his 12 points came in the fourth), continued to lurk within striking distance.
A quick aside: Yes, he had a big fourth-quarter, but does any player in the league take more 22-foot jumpers than Foye? I know this has been a constant source of frustration for every devoted Clippers fan, but at some point, you get so mad about it that you ... write about it, as I'm doing now. I counted three instances when Foye buried an outside shot that turned out to be a long 2 instead of a 3-pointer, which it easily could have been had Foye simply taken a half-step back. Randy, I understand you're comfortable stepping into your jumpers, but that 22-footer you love? That's the most inefficient shot in basketball. The arc is your friend. Get behind it. (Coincidentally, Foye went 0-for-4 from downtown.)
So how did the Clippers prevent the Lakers from running away with this one? When the latter took a double-digit lead in the third quarter, I honestly thought the Clippers would start to force the action, get sloppy and eventually fold in a heap in the final period. And indeed, the early-season version Clippers probably would have. But this version, an improved version, did the opposite. I know it's hard to be optimistic when the team is stuck in this weird kind of limbo - the playoffs are safely out of question, but since the Cavaliers received this year's first-round draft pick as part of the Baron Davis trade, tanking isn't an option, either - but what the Clippers accomplished over a four-plus-minute stretch beginning near the end of the third quarter provided signs of progress.
It began with 3:16 left in that quarter, when Griffin uncharacteristically missed a dunk. Aminu came flying in for the offensive rebound, was fouled by Ron Artest and sank both free throws, making good use of his anticipation, athleticism and long arms all in one sequence. On the next series, Foye picked off a pass from Kobe Bryant and threw the ball ahead to Williams, who finished the break with a layup. 80-71, Lakers. The Clippers would go on to score on each of their next four possessions while tightening on defense, steadily trimming the Lakers' advantage at a time they have typically struggled in throughout the season - the third quarter.
Now it's true that the Clippers are still maddeningly inconsistent in this regard - they were outscored, 28-17, in the third quarter as recently as Wednesday's double-overtime win over the Wizards - but tonight they buckled down and made plays at a critical juncture against a team jockeying for playoff seeding. Granted, playing against the Lakers always seems to bring the best out of the Clippers, but no one would have been surprised had they come up lame, especially in this, a late-season contest. They didn't tonight. That's something to build on going into next season.
Of course, the Clippers' run would come to an end sooner rather than later. Especially with Kobe dominating yet another fourth quarter, seemingly responding to every Clippers basket with a midrange jumper or a trip to the line until, eventually, there was no answer for his late-game brilliance. Gordon's long-awaited spurt, as mentioned earlier, came too late, and with Mo Williams finally going cold toward the finish line, the Clippers had to watch the Lakers pull away in the final minute.
The thing is, it probably wasn't just the final minute. The Lakers steadily wore the Clippers down throughout the game. Too much length, especially in the paint, which Andrew Bynum controlled to the tune of 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. The Clippers countered with their own seven-footers in Kaman (eight points and seven rebounds before he was ejected with 28 seconds left for jawing with Derek Fisher after the Lakers point guard hit him in the head as he was trying to get around a Kaman screen) and DeAndre Jordan (three points and four blocks in his return from a two-game absence brought on by a mild bout with pneumonia). Bynum and Pau Gasol (26 points and eight rebounds), though, were just too strong tonight, a reality supported by the Lakers' 41-34 rebounding edge. Griffin executed a few nifty post moves and threw down two awe-inspiring alley-oop dunks, but after breaking out of his rebounding slump with 17 boards against the Wizards, he had just six rebounds tonight.
And beyond Kobe (37 points on 11-for-21 shooting and 14-for-17 from the line), too much Ron Artest, too. Gordon may have missed more than a few shots he usually makes, but much of his misery was a product of the Lakers' perimeter defense, with Artest leading the way. Ron Ron was everywhere, picking up three steals, three blocks, three 3-pointers and even a driving baseline flush in an all-around effort. After months of seemingly floating around in the Lakers' system, Artest appears to be rounding into form, and that's bad news for the rest of the league. There were times tonight when you just saw he wanted it more than the Clippers, as he did in stripping Griffin in transition even as the rookie seemed poised for another fast-breaking dunk late in the fourth quarter. Artest's small-forward counterpart, Gomes, was virtually invisible in hitting a lone 3-pointer in 15 minutes.
All things considered, you still have to be encouraged that the Clippers were able to hang in there almost the entire way, and without any scoring punch from Gordon. At the same time, that's part of the frustration - the Clippers playing far from their best game but still coming so close. It's been rare this season for the Clippers to put together a complete showing, as they've played one big game of whack-a-mole, performing well in certain areas even as other problems continue to pop up without immediate solutions. Tonight, they shot well (50 percent from the field), moved the ball (23 assists) and capitalized in transition (21 fast break points). They couldn't stop their opponent, though, at least not when it mattered, and it didn't help that their go-to scorer had a miserable game. That this all happened against the Lakers only made it worse.