In three prior meetings with the Dallas Mavericks this season, the Los Angeles Clippers have fallen behind in the fourth quarter, only to come storming back from behind to steal the win. Thursday night in STAPLES Center, the Clippers tried to go to that well once again, but it proved to be once too often.
As in prior meetings, the Clippers dug themselves a hole, and then finally turned up the screws defensively. This time they fell behind by a dozen, 109-97, with less than three minutes remaining. The defense was stellar the rest of the way, as Dallas did not make another field goal, and only scored four more points, all of them coming on free throws in the final 20 seconds when the Clippers were forced to foul to stop the clock. Unfortunately, there's little margin for error when trying to overcome a 12 point deficit in less than three minutes, and a 10-0 Clippers run to cut the lead to two ended abruptly with a couple of empty trips.
That the Clippers had two possessions in the final minute to tie the game or take the lead is remarkable in its own right. But three point misses from J.J. Redick and Darren Collison sealed their fate, as they dropped just their sixth game at home this season.
It's apropos that the Clippers came up empty with three point attempts with the game on the line -- they were just 6-27 from deep on the evening. Actually, they made four of the first seven three pointers -- do the math and you'll realize that they were 2-20 the rest of the way. Welp. It's just not easy to win NBA games without making threes.
Especially when the other team is making threes. The Mavericks were a red-hot 14-29 from deep on the evening. Eight more three point makes, 24 additional points, on just two more three point attempts -- that's your ball game right there.
Give credit to the Mavs. They're playing for their post-season lives, and they made a lot of shots tonight in a crucial win. More than once the Clippers made defensive mistakes to leave three point shooters open. But the Mavs also made tough shots against strong defensive closeouts.
The loss, coupled with Oklahoma City's win over San Antonio (snapping the Spurs 19 game winning streak), effectively ends any hope the Clippers may have had of overtaking the Thunder for the second seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder now lead the Clippers by four games in the all-important loss column and even if the Clippers win out in the final five games, Oklahoma City would have to go 4-4 in their final eight for the Clippers to move ahead of them. While the Thunder have a difficult remaining schedule, it's simply not likely that they're going to lose four games in the next two weeks.
Which may be just as well. The Clippers are about as safe in the three seed as the Thunder are at two, and with the pressure of seeding somewhat diminished, the team can just focus on playing well and getting healthy.
They took one step forward -- and possibly one step back -- in that regard tonight. J.J. Redick returned to the lineup for the first time in two months, and while he wasn't exactly sharp, he did log 24 active minutes. He shot just 3-10 from the field (with two three pointers) but the misses seemed to be a function of rust: it takes some time to get your timing back after such a long layoff.
Unfortunately, in the final seconds Blake Griffin seemed to tweak his ankle a bit. It certainly wasn't a bad sprain, but already nursing a sore back, it was enough to leave him on the floor in pain. Whether it was the ankle, or more back spasms brought on from the fall is difficult to say. The Clippers have two days off before their Sunday showdown against the Lakers, so Griffin will have some time to recuperate. But it goes without saying that the Clippers can ill afford to lose him, or even have him banged up, with the playoffs looming.
Griffin posted his four career triple-double with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, but it took him 23 shots to score his 23 points, so it wasn't exactly his most efficient night. Darren Collison had his third straight game of 20 points or more with 22, and DeAndre Jordan had another big game against Dallas, with 21 points and 15 rebounds. However, the bench, playing without the injured Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger, was pretty anemic; Redick had 12, and Glen Davis had 4, and that was it. All of the starters logged big minutes, between 38 and 40 minutes each, but the team has a very light game schedule over the remaining two weeks, so long minutes shouldn't be a huge problem.
A sweep of the Mavericks and a legitimate shot at the two seed would have been nice, and in many ways the Clippers played well enough tonight to achieve those goals. They even managed to shut down a Dallas offense that had been scoring easily all night for the final three minutes. But the hole was too big, and the Clippers didn't make enough three balls, and that's all there is to that.
Now it's time to get healthy for the playoffs.