After their 29 point victory over the Boston Celtics Thursday, J.A. Adande of ESPN.com wondered if perhaps the Clippers had been too dominant during their then 15 game winning streak. By building insurmountable leads, by the stellar play of their bench that allowed the team to rest their starters in the fourth quarter, the Clippers were not getting any experience winning close games, a skill that must be practiced like anything else. Assuming that they would need to win close games as the season moves along, the series of laughers the Clippers have seen during the streak could potentially be masking a weakness in the team.
After Friday night's victory in Utah over the Jazz, consider the questions concerning the Clippers' ability to win close ones fully addressed.
We've known for weeks that this game would be difficult. It had all of the earmarks of a "schedule loss", with the Clippers playing the second game of a back-to-back with a 20-hour turnaround, a long flight, and an inhospitable venue on the road at altitude. It really doesn't get any tougher than that. Still, as well as the Clippers have been playing, there was some optimism that they could overcome all of the factors arrayed against them.
The game started surprisingly well for the Clippers, with six steals fueling a 29-22 lead after the first quarter, despite 14 points from former Clipper Randy Foye who seemed determined to keep the Jazz in the game single handedly. But the wheels came off near the end of the first quarter as the Clippers went ice cold, and for once the second unit was unable to exercise their will on their opponent. Instead it was Utah's reserve unit, especially Gordon Hayward and bigs Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors who changed the game. Utah outscored L.A. 23-7 over the first seven minutes of the second quarter to turn a seven point deficit into a nine point lead. Worse still, the Clippers seemed to be losing their composure. The concern over how they might respond when faced with adversity suddenly seemed justified as L.A. picked up a couple of technical fouls and spent far too much time arguing calls and not enough getting back on defense.
The first four minutes of the second half featured more of the same. With Foye making shots from the tabernacle and the capital building and the Clippers looking lethargic, Utah stretched a 10 point lead to 19 and it seemed as if the "schedule loss" expectation had been correct all along. Maybe if the Clippers had been more energetic, maybe if the Jazz hadn't been shooting the lights out, maybe it would have been a little different. But the streak was bound to end some time, and in Utah on the second night of a back-to-back was a likely candidate.
And then something strange happened. Reminiscent of their come back in Memphis in the 2012 playoffs, the Clippers went on furious run initiated by their defense. Coach Vinny Del Negro went against his usual rotations and made a situation substitution, inserting Matt Barnes into the game with the sole assignment of getting up on Foye. Foye is not great off the dribble, so if you stay up on him, eschew help defense and just take away Foye's space, he can certainly be contained, even if he's hitting his deep ball as he was. Barnes made a three pointer on his first touch and then stole the ball from Foye on his first defensive sequence. The Clippers went on a 21-5 run over the next six minutes to cut the lead down to three, and from then on it was a dogfight.
Oftentimes when climbing out of a big hole, it seems the energy exerted to get out of the hole leaves the team too spent to avoid falling back in. Caron Butler's four point play tied the game at 90 three minutes into the fourth quarter -- but the Clippers proceeded to surrender the next five points to Kanter and Favors to fall behind by five again. But three old-fashioned three point plays (a pair from DeAndre Jordan and one from Blake Griffin) finally put the Clippers in the lead with 3:27 remaining, a lead they extended to three points on a Jamal Crawford layup 20 seconds later following a steal.
But it wasn't over yet. Al Jefferson scored four straight to put Utah back on top with 1:39 remaining, and then it was time for Chris Paul to take over. Utah decided to defend Paul with length in the final quarter, placing Hayward on him. Unfortunately, Hayward was not really able to stay with Paul without fouling him and he immediately put Paul on the line where he put the Clippers back on top. After a couple of empty trips, Paul then left Hayward backpedaling in the lane as he pulled up for a jumper to give the Clippers a three point lead. And it still wasn't over. With 17 seconds remaining Paul stepped to the line again for two free throws to extend the Clippers lead back to three. Having made his first 11 in the game, he missed the second, and Griffin was called for a loose ball foul on the rebound. Jefferson made both of his foul shots to tie the game, but the Clippers had another possession to try to win it. Of course the ball went to Paul, and once again Utah was unable to contain him without fouling, as Jefferson was caught reaching in as he tried to step out and defend the pick and roll. This time Paul made both free throws. With three seconds remaining Utah gave the ball to Foye to try to win it with a three pointer, but Barnes played solid defense to force a tough shot which came up short. Foye argued to no avail for a foul, but there was no whistle, which seemed like the correct call given that Foye had created the contact by jumping into Barnes.
For the second time in the month, for wins three and 16 of the streak, the Clippers had gone to Salt Lake City and stolen a victory. In fact, the Clippers have now won three straight road games against Utah -- by a total of five points.
The Clippers have spent most of their winning streak distributing playing time far and wide, playing their reserves liberally, and winning handily. But in this game they needed their stars to play big minutes and carry them, and that's what they did. Paul scored a season high 29 points in 38 minutes, which is more than he's played in a month. Griffin had 22 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes, the most he's played in a regulation game all season. It's great to be able to rest those guys in most games, so they're ready to answer the call when you need them.
And let's face facts: questioning how this team will be able to handle close games is ultimately silly. The Clippers are led by the best point guard in basketball, the smartest player in basketball, the best leader in basketball, the top closer in basketball. At the end of close games, it comes down to players making plays, and no one in the league makes more plays than Chris Paul. It's great that the Clippers have the ability to blow out most opponents, but you'd also be foolish to bet against them in the close ones.