What is it about the Los Angeles Clippers and the Eastern Conference this season? Over two-thirds of the teams in the league, 21 out of 30, have a better winning percentage against the East than against the West, which certainly stands to reason given that the West is universally accepted as being the significantly better conference, top to bottom.
The Clippers don't seem to realize that they're supposed to be getting fat on East competition, particularly at home. In their just concluded nine game homestand, the Clippers went 4-0 against the West -- 2-3 against the East, including today's 104-90 loss to the no-longer-particularly-good Miami Heat. Toss in an embarrassing home loss to the Chicago Bulls back in November, and four of the Clippers six home losses this season have come against Leastern Conference teams.
This one looked like it would be a laugher for the Clippers early on. They jumped out to a 19-6 lead less than halfway through the first, and it felt like the momentum from Saturday's impressive win over the Dallas Mavericks had carried over and that maybe, just maybe, the team had found it's way out of it's season-long malaise. Then Miami brought in their secret weapon -- the unstoppable Hassan Whiteside.
When I included a blurb about Whiteside in the game preview, I had no idea what a factor he would be -- no one could have. In his first two SEASONS in the NBA, Whiteside scored a TOTAL of 29 points and grabbed a TOTAL of 39 rebounds. He's been a revelation for the Heat since joining them in December, but even solid games like 11 points and 10 rebounds pale in comparison to what he did in this one. Whitside established career highs in minutes (29), points (23) and rebounds (16) and posted a game high plus 26. He was so impressive that Heat coach Eric Spoelstra inserted him into the starting lineup in the second half (which he opened with a dunk). He outrebounded DeAndre Jordan, the NBA's leading rebounder mind you, 16-6, part of Miami's complete domination of the glass, 46-27.
Combined with Chris Bosh, who scored 34 points on 13-20 shooting including the three pointer that closed the door on the Clippers once and for all, the top two Miami bigs nearly double the output of the Clippers' pair of Jordan and Blake Griffin 57 to 30 in scoring, 23 to 12 on the boards -- and that just simply shouldn't happen.
It's tempting to complain at least a bit about the officiating in this game -- something the Clippers themselves did plenty of on their way to four different technical fouls -- and indeed their were some questionable calls. Rookie ref Lauren Holtkamp in particular seemed to go out of her way to hang borderline calls on the Clippers. A Jordan screen that leveled an unsuspecting Bosh was completely legal but looked nasty -- and resulted in a foul on Jordan. Then when Paul was leveled setting a screen, he was called for a trip when the defender fell over his prostrate body, a really bizarre call. When the Heat threw a bad pass that would have triggered a Clippers' fast break, the ball went back to Miami for a marginal push on Griffin that was totally incidental to the steal. There were just a bunch of those calls that all seemed to go against LA.
But it's certainly not the officiating crew's fault that Miami got 46 rebounds. And if the Clippers poor play was partly because they lost focus while chirping at the officials, well that's on the team -- they can't let that happen.
It's certainly not the officiating crew's fault that the Clippers appeared to have no idea how to rotate onto a big rolling to the rim on a pick and roll. Among Whiteside's ten baskets were four dunks where he was alone at the rim. I realize that the Clippers haven't been practicing a lot, but you'd think if there was one team in the league that had practiced some against bigs rolling to the rim, it would be the Clippers.
Heading into the final period, the Clippers were down ten, having allowed 84 points to a team that only averages 94 per game. The defense did buckle down a bit in the fourth, holding Miami to just 18 in the final stanza -- unfortunately, the offense managed only 14 in one of their poorest quarters of the season.
I've really struggled to put my finger on what is wrong with this team this season and the problem defies easy explanation. But watching the game today, it occurred to me that they don't seem to be able to find that extra something when they need it. That early 19-6 lead vanished amid a 20-4 Miami run -- and the Clippers never really managed any response. They stopped the bleeding, kept the margin in the eight to twelve range, but never really mounted a comeback -- and let's face it, good teams mount comebacks, or at least they should, especially playing at home. This team has simply not handled adversity well so far this season -- if they fall behind, they tend to stay there.
Just as they did with their home-friendly schedule early in the season, the Clippers squandered an opportunity during this long homestand to really gain some traction. Six wins in nine home game isn't a disaster -- but it's certainly not what you are hoping for from a team that has lots of ground to make up in the standings.
Back in November, the Clippers responded with a long road winning streak to avoid falling off the pace altogether -- they'll need to do something similar this time as well, starting Wednesday night in Portland. And at some point they're going to have to find another gear when they need it, or they're destined for an early exit in the playoffs, assuming they even get there.