It would be difficult to imagine a more frustrating two-games-in-two-nights sequence than the Los Angeles Clippers just completed in Oakland and Portland. A day after losing a game to the Golden State Warriors in which they were deprived of one of their superstars based on a series of calls the NBA subsequently admitted were bogus, a tired Clippers team went into Portland to face the team with the best record in the league, and took a three point with seven seconds remaining, only to watch the Blazers sink a three pointer to tie the game and then win in overtime.
It's small consolation right now, but I feel very certain of two things after these two games: (1) the Clippers are better than either the Warriors or the Blazers and (2) the Clippers will win by double digits the next time they face either of these two teams.
The Clippers were carried in this one by their stars, as Blake Griffin (a season-high 35) and Chris Paul (34) combined for 69 points, the third time they've each scored 30 in a game as teammates and their second highest combined point total. Paul almost won it for the Clippers in regulation, with eight straight points in the final 2:13 to give the Clippers a three point lead, but his 17 footer to win the game at the regulation buzzer came up just a hair short.
The Blazers are now 11-1 on the season in games that were within three points in the final two minutes (i.e. one possession games) and while there are a couple of factors that might give Portland a slight edge in such games (for instance, they are a good free throw shooting team) the simple fact of the matter is that these games are more or less coin tosses -- and the Blazers have hit heads 11 times out of 12.
The end of this game was far beyond a coin toss. You can credit the Blazers for running a play in the final seconds that got a decent look for Nic Batum, a good three point shooter, but in fact the Clippers got an even better look for Chris Paul at the buzzer, and the only way the Clippers don't win that game in regulation after taking that three point lead is a Batum make followed by a Paul miss -- any other combination and the Clippers win. If the shots were all 50-50 propositions, the Clippers still win three times in four. In fact, Paul's shot was easier, and the odds were much more favorable to the Clippers. But that's not how sports works, Batum made his shot, Paul missed his, and the team's played on.
In the overtime, all you can do is tip you cap to LaMarcus Aldridge. LA was 12-27 in regulation -- the Clippers made him work hard for his 25 regulation points. But he scored seven quick ones in overtime to put the Blazers in control, while making three of four shots including two tough fallaway jumpers. The play of the game may have been Aldridge's layup early in the overtime on which DeAndre Jordan committed his sixth foul. The three point lead gave Portland a one point lead and put the Blazers back on the front foot, but more importantly it forced Doc Rivers to go to his bench.
The absence of a viable third big on the Clippers roster has been a known problem all season. With Jordan disqualified and the game on the line, against a team featuring a BIG seven footer and a 6'11 power forward who is eighth in the NBA in scoring, Rivers chose to go small rather than to trust Ryan Hollins or Antawn Jamison. Playing Matt Barnes and Griffin at the four and five at the end didn't work at either spot -- Aldridge shot over the smaller Griffin on the block (though Griffin did play good defense), while Robin Lopez overpowered Barnes for a key offensive rebound the one time Aldridge missed. The Clippers certainly had their chance to win in regulation -- but they couldn't string a stop and a defensive rebound together in the final four minutes of overtime, and that's certainly not a recipe for a win.
From the season-low 14 point first quarter, the Clippers were playing catchup in this game. They missed 15 of 21 field goal attempts in the first, including all six of their threes, and looked like a tired team that had just flown in from California. Nor did it help that some bizarre bounces seemed to go against them -- loose balls that looked like Clippers steals that somehow turned into Portland basket, or worse yet banked in jump shots against tough defense (not one but twice!). In fact, the stat of the game may be Batum's 2-6 from beyond the arc -- his two makes being one he banked in and the one to force overtime.
In the end, a Clippers team that left Los Angeles riding a five game winning streak and sitting at 20-9 overall returns at 20-11 after two "what if" losses.
All they can do is start a new winning streak on Saturday. And crush the Blazers and Warriors the next time they see them.