Steve Ballmer likes excitement, right? Then his first regular season game as Clippers owner was perfect for him!
Not really, though. This was an awful game and cringeworthy to watch at times (and I watched Warriors-Kings last night). After Portland rolled a shorthanded Thunder team last night in the Rose Garden, I predicted a fairly comfortable blowout win tonight in the Staples Center, since there was no way OKC could keep up with an amped-up Clipper team seeking revenge, right?
As it turned out, just when we thought we had sports figured out, it finds yet another way to 'sports' us once more. The Clippers came out flat and decided to keep a consistent motif for the rest of the game. Somehow they weren't able to put away a tired team that in the second half was probably only marginally better than the 76ers. Even after shots started falling late in the third quarter, Oklahoma City still found a way to scrap and score just enough to maintain a threat advisory. Then some late game antics threatened to turn this into a shocking upset, but try as they might, the Clippers were not able to choke it away against an even more hapless team.
The warning bells started ringing in my head within the first few minutes, as the Thunder took an 8-0 lead two minutes into the game. Serge Ibaka was cooking early, while Los Angeles had no clue what was going on in the kitchen (terrible metaphors for $200, Alex). The Clippers were lackadaisical and complacent, as if this was still the preseason, or all the horrible things the sky-is-falling crowd said was completely true. Even their first points of the season — a pair of free throws by Blake Griffin — came after what should have been an easy breakaway dunk was squandered by a casually jogging Griffin, allowing Perry Jones to get back into the play and force a trip to the line. As it turned out, this was a harbinger of things to come.
The Clippers slowly clawed their way back into the game: Matt Barnes rediscovered his confidence and put up seven in the first frame, but the rest of the team was still sluggish; after one quarter, both Griffin and Jordan had two fouls (prompting an Ekpe Udoh appearance, over Hedo Turkoglu), and while the Clippers were only down six, 28-22, they were being outshot 56%-33%. As it turned out, the frigidity continued mostly unabated for the rest of the evening.
The game took a startling turn midway through the second quarter when Russell Westbrook left holding his right hand after a routine scrap for a rebound in traffic; that was it for him tonight, so he didn't have an opportunity to match his 38 from Wednesday against the Trail Blazers. However, there was an interesting incident when he reacted to a heckler while walking to the locker room:
The fan was later thrown out, although there's no concrete testimony on what exactly he said to ignite Westbrook, who of course could have just been having a bad day (wouldn't blame him).
After that, you'd think the Thunder would have even less of a chance against one of the Western Conference's elite, but yet again OKC defied common wisdom. Even though they were starting third-stringer Sebastian Telfair at point guard (with no other ballhandlers available, it was left to Perry Jones to run the point when Telfair got a quick rest in the second half), and only eight guys were available, Oklahoma City still managed to keep the game competitive (whether or not it was interesting is another matter entirely).
You'd expect that team to be unable to make any shots, considering who they had available. But you wouldn't expect it so much from the Clippers, who went 7-30 behind the arc and shot 39% for the game. It seemed as if no one on this team could buy a shot — Redick went 1-10, Hawes 2-6, Crawford 5-15 — and they weren't even taking bad shots (Jamal aside). Even Blake only shot 8-18, despite showcasing his much-improved jumper that was the main source of offense for the Clippers for the majority of the night.
And it wasn't as if the Thunder were playing superb basketball either; they were probably even worse than the Clippers in that regard. The turnover differential was a staggering 27-12 in favor of Los Angeles, with only ten of those coming from steals. You can bet there will be a few Shaqtin' a Fool moments from OKC tonight — on more than one occasion, they committed shot clock violations, completely unaware of the time remaining, and Andre Roberson had at least two turnovers where he completely lost his handle and sent the ball flying into the stands.
Yet OKC persevered. Most of the credit has to go to Perry Jones, who more than doubled his previous career high by scoring 32 points, looking downright unstoppable at times. He hit threes, posted up, and drove in for lay-ups, taking advantage of a lackluster Clipper defense. And Serge Ibaka showed up in the fourth quarter, almost bringing the Thunder back to an improbable victory.
But a lack of experience was the Thunder's undoing late. After a Redick 3 (his first made field goal of the game) put Los Angeles up 89-82 with three minutes to go, OKC first attempted to staunch the bleeding by going to Hack-a-DJ — when the Clips weren't even in the bonus (Doc happily substituted in Spencer Hawes, something that could be a little more common this year in these situations). Of course the Clippers couldn't take advantage of this gift horse looking them square in the mouth, and instead gave up a pair of threes to make this a one-point game with little more than a minute remaining. One of those came on a play where the Thunder ran an elevator doors screen for... Serge Ibaka, and the other was a pull-up by Telfair coming off a screen.
The entire game was weird, and the final minute was certainly no exception. Another Thunder turnover led to a wide open JJ three from the wing, and he promptly bricked an opportunity to put the game away. OKC refused to lay down, and gave it right back to him again, this time in the corner. He missed again. Steven Adams threw the ball away out of bounds, got it back, and was stripped by DeAndre Jordan, sending Chris Paul to the line with 13 seconds to go, sealing up the game.
That was it, right? Captain Crunch coolly sinking some clutch free throws and leading the Clippers to their first win of the season? Wrong, no Lucky Charms for Chris today, as he bricked both. Of couse TNT immediately cut to their package from Game 5 last season (speaking of bad refereeing...).
But there was yet another terrible Thunder possession, and this time it was Blake Griffin to the line. Thankfully, someone had their Wheaties this morning, and calmly sank a pair. After that, it was just playing the foul game to draw out the final few seconds. Serge Ibaka got a half-decent look from 30 feet with time expiring, but his aim wasn't true, and the good Steve Ballmer prevailed in his first regular season contest as owner.
This was an ugly game that should have been an easy laugher, but Clippers fans should remember that it's only the first of 82, and overreacting to one game is pretty stupid. After all, Cleveland lost too. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, their margin of error is much smaller, since they play Friday night in Chicago. The Clippers are a little better off, going on the road to Staples Center to take on a Lakers team that might be even worse than this iteration of the Thunder.
We'll see if the Clippers can get back on track against Kobe and his roving band of three-point-hating minions.