Well I said going into it that this game was big and I'm not going to go revisionist now. It was a big game, the Clippers needed to win it, they didn't and that hurts. They have no one to blame but themselves for playing a completely unacceptable first half in which they committed 15 turnovers and shot 2-11 on wide open three pointers. But there's good news to be taken from the game as well.
After falling behind by a game-high 19 with a little over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Clippers finally woke up. Why they had chosen to sleep to that point, why they had zero energy to start the biggest game of the season so far, is a different question and one that does not bode well for the team. But at least they did finally wake up. They closed the third quarter on a 15-5 run (a run that easily could have been 19-5 but for a couple of missed layups by Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford). They took that momentum into the fourth quarter, outscoring the Thunder 17-9 to cut the lead all the way down to one at 91-90 on a Crawford three with 4:24 left in the game -- a sequence in which the Clippers outscored the Thunder 32-14 in about 12 minutes of basketball.
Then things got weird.
After getting within a point, the Clippers suddenly gave up six straight in short order, the final two coming on their 20th turnover of the game and resulting in a breakaway dunk for Russell Westbrook to put the Thunder back up 97-90 with three minutes remaining. After a Matt Barnes three pointer followed by a Serge Ibaka dunk, the score stood at 99-93 Thunder with just over two minutes left.
On the next possession the Clippers played inside out, and Griffin's kick out to Odom was beautifully reversed around the perimeter to Paul to Crawford and finally to Barnes for the corner three, which he sank. As the ball was in the air, Griffin was fighting Ibaka for rebounding position and Ibaka lost his cool and delivered a low blow to Griffin's crotch, drawing a flagrant foul. The officials reviewed the foul and decided it was a Category 1, not a Category 2, so apparently punching an opponent in the groin is not "excessive" to Dan Crawford, Kevin Cutler and Derrick Collins (more on that here). Griffin made one of two free throws and the Clippers got the ball out of bounds, and a couple of offensive rebounds later Crawford hit another three, making it a seven point trip altogether and giving the Clippers their first lead of the game at 100-99 (not to mention invoking Lawler's Law).
But just as they had given up six quick points after cutting the lead to one, this time they gave up five quick ones, during which time Griffin picked up his fifth and sixth fouls, and suddenly the Thunder were up four with 59 seconds left and the L.A. had lost their second best player. The Clippers cut the lead to two and needed one more stop to give themselves a chance to win, but Westbrook hit a clutch baseline jumper to more or less settle things.
The really good news is that there is really no reason for the Clippers to fear this Oklahoma City team come playoff time. That may seem like a strange statement regarding the defending Western Conference champions who have just taken the season series three games to none, but it's true. The fact is that Paul missed one of the three games, and was 3-21 from the field in three of the four halves in which he played. The one half where he was anything above terrible, the second half today, the Clippers won by nine. I'll gladly stipulate to the fact that OKC is better than the Clippers when Paul shoots under 15% from the field -- and take my chances that it's not going to happen in the playoffs.
Over and above the Paul factor, the Clippers may also have found a vulnerability in the vaunted Thunder offense. The game turned -- and I mean 180 degrees, turned on a dime -- when the Clippers began to employ a 1-2-2 zone in the third quarter. The Thunder were taken out of any semblance of offensive rhythm by the zone, and Kevin Durant admitted as much after the game. Will that zone be effective in the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not, but you can rest assured that the Thunder are going to see plenty of it if they end up facing the Clippers.
So there's plenty of evidence that the Clippers can compete with the Thunder, but the sad fact remains that they haven't done so often this season. The shame of this game was the Clippers first half, which was more than a bit embarrassing. As I watched, I honestly felt like the Clippers could come back in the second half, simply because they had played so lethargically that they were extremely lucky to be within 13 points at halftime. After matching their season high in turnovers for a half while their best player shot 1-7, while the referees were sending the opponent to the line for 20 free throws compared to five for the home team, they could have easily been behind by 30. It always felt to me like the Clippers could get back in the game with a sustained period of energetic play.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, the effort of overcoming a big deficit left little in reserve for actually finishing the game. The Clippers made a valiant effort, but came up just a bit shot in the end. It's strikes a significant blow to their hopes of finishing above third in the playoffs, but sets up a very interesting playoff series should these two teams meet in May.
For the OKC perspective, visit Welcome to Loud City.
|Final - 3.3.2013||1||2||3||4||Total|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||27||27||28||26||108|
|Los Angeles Clippers||20||21||32||31||104|