The Los Angeles Clippers played an absolutely terrible first quarter in Chicago against the Bulls Friday night. They allowed the Bulls, a team that averages 93 points a game and is ranked 28th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, to score 26 points on 12-24 shooting, including fully 20 points in the paint. The game was four minutes old before the Clippers got a rebound, and by that time the Bulls already had five boards -- of their own misses. It was a defensive disaster.
And it didn't matter a bit, because the Clippers couldn't miss, and in particular they couldn't miss from three point range. The Clippers led after one quarter 41-26, making 14-19 overall and 7-8 from deep. The seven three pointers was a franchise record for made threes in a quarter. The 41 points was the most the Bulls have given up in a quarter in several seasons under Tom Thibodeau. In fact, the Bulls must be feeling a bit snakebit after running into a white out Clippers team twice this season. The Clippers have now hung 121 and 112 on the Bulls, the two highest point totals Chicago has allowed in regulation this season.
But back to that first quarter. Teams can play well and lose; and conversely teams can play badly and win. The Clippers cleaned up their act some as the game wore on, but make no mistake: they did not play well in the first quarter, nor even in the first half. They SHOT well, but they did not play well. There's a difference.
Certainly the Clippers executed well on offense. They made 10 of their first 11 threes in part because they were moving the ball and finding good shooters for open looks. Of those ten first half threes, five were from the corner: one of the best shots in basketball, and consequently a shot that Thibodeau hates to give up. The Clippers offense was working to get those looks -- and then they made them.
The defense on the other hand: yikes.
I happened to watch the ESPN broadcast tonight. Mike Tirico and Jon Barry don't send me over the edge the way guys like Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller do, and it's interesting to get the national TV perspective from time to time. Because I was on ESPN, I got to hear Doc Rivers' first quarter coach's remarks, and I'm glad I did, because he succinctly made a point that I've tried to make on the blog many times. When asked by Heather Cox about the seven made threes in contrast to the six they made all game in Charlotte, Rivers said:
It's a make-or-miss league. We got great looks the other night; they didn't go in. Tonight they're going in; and we're going to keep shooting them every night.
The Clippers' are among the worst three point shooting teams in the league by percentage, but Rivers does not view this as a team that shoots the long ball poorly. He knows that six of his top eight shooters are below their career numbers, and only one is above. He further knows that for the Clippers to be the team that he wants them to be, to be a team that can compete deep into the playoffs, they must be effective from beyond the three point line. If they don't take open threes, they have essentially already lost their chance, because good NBA teams make three pointers, and lots of them. This team was built to shoot threes, and that's just how it is. The common refrain of "If they're not going in then stop taking them" sounds simple enough -- but it is flat wrong.
Of course, it would be nice if we could trade a couple first half makes in Chicago for a couple of second have misses in Charlotte and come away with two wins in those two games, but unfortunately it doesn't work that way. The Clippers seem to run hot and cold (or more accurately, red-hot and ice-cold) from deep, and that's a problem. One can only hope they can find some consistency in the second half of the season. Overall, they remain well below what one would expect from theis group certainly.
The good news is that the Clippers could very well have given this game back, but they did not. Despite their crazy good shooting and 68 first half points, they led by only 13 at the break. The Bulls cut the lead to single digits a couple times in the third quarter, and seemed to be building some momentum. But the Clippers always put together a basket and a stop to turn the tide, and more often that not Blake Griffin was at the center of the surge.
It's one thing to go for 26, 13 and seven; it's quite another thing to do it against the Chicago Bulls, while being defended by Joakim Noah. And for some reason, the officials basically decided not to call ANYTHING, on either end, in this game. There were 17 fouls called on each team in the game. Teams shoot the bonus on the fifth foul each quarter: so 17 fouls probably means that teams weren't in the bonus for at least two of four quarters. How often does that happen?
At some point it seemed like the officiating crew just made a conscious decision that the game was over, that the Clippers were just too hot and nothing would change that, and wanted the game to end as quickly as possible. On one play Noah fouled Griffin going for a strip, then tried to wrap him up on an intentional foul -- with no call. (Griffin to referee Leon Wood: "Come on Leon.") Noah fouled Griffin hard the next time down also -- still no call. (Griffin to Wood: "COME ON LEON!") Early in the fourth quarter, Taj Gibson simply grabbed Hedo Turkoglu's left arm after he was badly beaten, and Hedo almost made a one handed shot with his left arm trailing behind him, firmly attached to Gibson -- no call. At least the officials were consistent -- Griffin and Jordan challenged many Chicago shots at the rim with plenty of contact and no call. Maybe Wood had a date, who knows.
The Clippers improve to 3-2 on the road trip, and even their road record on the season at 12-12. This was a Bulls team that had been winning a lot of games (though it's hard to say how exactly), so beating them convincingly on the road, while playing without Chris Paul, is a nice win. Yes the victory was abetted by a bunch of three pointers -- but the Clippers won the second half as well, while making only three long balls.
The Clippers now head to Toronto tomorrow to play the improved Raptors, who are also coming off a win today.