I'm anticipating that there is going to be much hand-wringing in the citizenry concerning the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers allowed the Boston Celtics to trim a 23 point lead all the way down to three points with under four minutes to play. But let's make something clear — the Celtics made ten of their first eleven shots in the fourth quarter, right up to the Marcus Thornton three pointer that got them as close as they were going to get. Five of the ten field goals were three pointers, and add an old-fashioned and-one three point play into the mix as well. The final tally was 26 points in 13 possessions (they had a turnover and Kelly Olynyk also missed a pair of free throws). The Clippers defense certainly wasn't good during the sequence — but it was mostly about Boston making shots, some of them pretty improbable.
Boston missed their next four shots, as they were almost bound to, and the Clippers pulled away for a victory that wasn't as easy as one might have liked, but was still pretty easy. The Clippers never trailed in the game and maintained a double digit lead through most of the second half until Boston decided to not miss any shots for seven minutes.
The Clippers built their big lead on the strength of big games from big men, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Jordan was almost perfect on the day, with 18 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks, and numerous other shots affected. He went 8-9 from the field, with his lone miss coming on a play where he was probably fouled. He did miss three of four free throws late when the Celtics resorted to intentionally fouling, but other than that you could scarcely have asked for more from him.
Griffin was almost as impressive, with 22 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Griffin is playing offense with a level of confidence approaching cockiness. On several occasions in this game he had the ball late in the shot clock with the defense turned up and he calmly surveyed the situation and found either a shot or a pass that led to points. It's not as if Griffin didn't strike me as calm and confident before, but he seems to be entering new territory at this point.
It's a good thing for the Clippers that Griffin and Jordan were so good, because several others were somewhat sub-par. Chris Paul did make his only two three pointers, including one with 48 seconds left, but he was 1-7 on two point field goals, continuing to struggle overall with his shot. His shooting slump has now stretched to four game, though there's little doubt that he'll snap out of it soon enough, He's too good a shooter for this to continue, but until he starts making shots again the Clippers will definitely be vulnerable.
A big part of that vulnerability is the bench, which continues to be a problem. As confident as Griffin has become, the complete opposite is true of Spencer Hawes. His first couple of shots in this game were air balls, and thereafter he seemed to overthink everything (though he did finish with four field goals including a three and a pretty nasty follow dunk). As for the newest Clipper Austin Rivers, he did make his first basket as a Clipper on an awkward drive to the basket, but he also missed a couple of shots and was so gunshy that he passed up a wide open layup to opt for a pass that led to a turnover. Rivers hasn't been good — but he's not this bad, is he? His defense, it should be noted, continues to be pretty good.
A win is a win, and though it got a little tense in the fourth, the Clippers took care of business in this one. They're still not the team we want them to be, but in some ways they are getting close.
One interesting subplot of this game was that Tayshaun Prince made a surprise Celtics debut. Prince is widely expected to be bought out by Boston, and I for one never expected to see him suit up in green. Whether he can still be the perimeter defender he once was remains to be seen, but Boston Coach Brad Stevens had enough confidence in him (and Prince in himself) that he defended Paul in crunch time. A veteran with a championship pedigree who is capable of defending multiple positions on the perimeter? Sounds a lot like a player the Clippers could use if he does wind up available in the next month or so.
After mercifully not experiencing it for most of the season, the Clippers have now faced the "Bang the DJ" three straight games. It's no secret that I'm not a fan, but the way Stevens' used it today — to lengthen the game in the final quarter with his team trailing and needing to make up ground — is the one time when it clearly makes sense. I have no problem with coaches using it in that situation, though I still think a rule change giving the fouled team the option of simply inbounding the ball instead of shooting free throws would be a logical and effective change. Clippers coach Doc Rivers needs to be smart in these situations — rather than stubbornly leaving Jordan in the game, he should calmly remove him until the two minute mark, thus taking the strategy off the table. Rivers finally did just that with 2:20 left and his replacement Hawes promptly made a reverse layup that more or less sealed the game.