The Los Angeles Clippers played three very good quarters of basketball in Boston against the Celtics Sunday. Unfortunately, it turns out that NBA games are comprised of four quarters, and that fourth one, the second quarter, was abysmal. The Clippers were outscored 26-10 in the second and try as they might to dig out of the 19 point hole they dug for themselves by halftime, they never got all the way back. They had three consecutive possessions down three in the final three minutes, but never managed a particularly good shot on any of them. Jamal Crawford's three pointer at the buzzer cut the final margin to two, and that was as close as they would get.
What's particularly disconcerting is that the Clippers bench, which for the first half of the season was the best in the NBA, has suddenly become their Achilles heel. Losing Chris Paul is of course a major factor here. With Paul out, Eric Bledsoe leaves the second unit where he'd had so much success to become the starter, and the second five has to find their way again. In Boston the Clippers reserves were outscored by their Celtic counterparts 52-29. More troubling still, only two players off the bench actually scored for the Clippers. Crawford tied for game-high honors with 23 and Lamar Odom had 6 -- and that was it. Matt Barnes, Grant Hill and Ronny Turiaf combined for zero points on 0-9 shooting.
All season long the Clippers have defied NBA convention by using the hockey line shift philosophy and running five fresh bodies onto the court to play together. But in this game the full second unit of Hill, Crawford, Barnes, Odom and Turiaf started the second quarter with two points and six turnovers in five and a half minutes of basketball. It was a complete disaster, and frankly the Clippers were lucky to only get outscored 12-2 during that stretch.
There were other factors in the loss of course. Once again the Clippers got lit up from beyond the arc (and once again it seemed to me more a case of hot shooting than poor defense per se). The Celtics, 28th in the entire league in three point shooting at 33 percent, made a white hot 11-18 from deep. If they make half of 18 threes, which is still 50 percent better than their season average, the Clippers win this game. Instead, it was the ninth time this season that a Clipper opponent has made 11 or more threes while hitting better than 40 percent of them -- the Clippers are 0-9 in those games, a fairly astounding statistic when you realize that the team has only lost 15 times all season.
Turnovers were the other bugaboo for the Clippers, particularly in the first half. With 14 in the first half alone, including those six to start the second quarter, the Clippers never really gave themselves much chance to get their offense going. And while Boston is an excellent defensive team, many of these turnovers were just careless, having little to do with defensive pressure. Although the second half was much better in terms of taking care of the ball with just six more miscues after the intermission, it seemed fitting that the team's last best chance to get back in the game ended in an unforced error. With 2:15 remaining the Clippers down three and the team clearly exhausted after battling back from 19 down, Vinny Del Negro called timeout to make sure they got a good look. But at the very start of the set, Crawford stepped on the sideline receiving a pass from Griffin. The Clippers might not have won the game anyway, but a careless turnover out of a timeout is unforgivable.
Sadly the Clippers wasted a terrific game from Eric Bledsoe. He matching his career high in points with 23, and recorded his first career 20-10 game, adding 10 assists. Bledsoe will be a triple double threat if and when he becomes a full time starter, and with seven rebounds he came pretty close to his first career triple double Sunday.
Three games into their eight game road trip, the Clippers are 1-2, with losses to the 16-30 Raptors and the Rajon Rondo-less Celtics. This is not how it was supposed to go. Obviously the team is feeling the absence of their superstar and MVP candidate Chris Paul. But at this point Memphis is just one game back in the loss column, and Golden State is back two. In other words, if the team doesn't start winning again soon, they could soon drop to fourth or even fifth in the Western Conference.
I'm convinced they can win some of these games without Chris Paul -- but it would be a whole lot easier with him.
For the Boston perspective visit Celtics Blog.