The Clippers must have liked the first half a lot, because they came out for the second and did it all over again. The only real difference was the identity of the hero. DeAndre Jordan put a few exclamation points on a second quarter rally to give his team the halftime lead, and Jamal Crawford emerged from three largely invisible quarters to key the game-winning surge in the fourth.
Crawford was the magic man in the clutch, scoring all but two of his 23 points in the final quarter and contributing maybe the game's biggest play. With just a few ticks under 1:30 to go in the game, Chris Paul started a fastbreak with a rugged steal but sailed a half-court pass toward the baseline. Crawford saved it while flying out of bounds, and Matt Barnes finished with a layup to give the Clippers a 96-94 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
It can hardly be understated how eerily similar these two halves were to one another. The Clippers lost the first and third quarters 31-20 and 30-19. They won the second and fourth quarters 30-16 and 33-21. They took the first half lead with 52 seconds remaining. They retook the lead in the second half for good with 1:23 remaining. The crowd needed Glen Davis -- yes, he was so good in this one that he deserves to be called Glen -- to fire them up in both halves.
Each half began the same way: the Nuggets made shots they usually miss, and the Clippers missed shots they usually make. The Clippers looked tired, and not just physically, but mentally. Some of the errant passes came from preseason levels of miscommunication. In terms of unforced errors, tonight, the Clippers were Anna Kournikova.
The early miscues compounded a strong opening stanza by Los Angeles auditionee Wilson Chandler to put the Clipper bench in an unfamiliar situation, one in which they were asked to retake a lead, rather than give one away. (I kid, I kid...) In what is hopefully a sign of good things to come, Davis threw his big body around like a wild child, igniting the crowd and infusing his team with a spark that was completely lacking at the start. DeAndre Jordan picked up three of his four blocks in a 28-second span at the end of the second quarter, and the Clippers finished the first half on a smothering 22-6 run.
And then came the half. The Nuggets were saved by the break. Were this game allowed to continue, the spirited crowd may have propelled the Clippers to a double-digit lead and a runaway victory. Unfortunately, rules are rules, and each team headed to their respective locker room, where the Clippers remembered they were tired and the Nuggets realized they were not. Denver opened the third quarter by calmly sinking each of their first seven field goal attempts, a perfect run that lasted more than seven minutes, and it was deja vu all over again.
Again, in the fourth quarter, it was the embattled bench that stemmed the Denver tide. Doc Rivers looked ready to sub in Matt Barnes and Blake Griffin, but the bench planted their feet and bowed their backs and bought the starters a few extra minutes of sweet, sweet rest. Blake in particular looked like he needed it, struggling with his jump shot and finding little room inside. It's a testament to his increasing smarts that he finished just one rebound short of a triple-double, and he kept himself relevant with whip-smart passing. (And, how crazy is it that he finished short of another triple-double because of rebounds and not assists?) Barnes also had a strong game, leading the Clipper starters with 18 points and telling his Denver counterparts, you can't have my job just yet.
It's unlikely that we'll remember much about this win in a few months, it being a rainy and unexciting Monday night in January and against an equally unexciting Denver squad, but it counts all the same in the standings. And, if it's the game in which the bench finally found a way to pull its own weight, they maybe it'll be worth remembering after all.
Some other (mostly serious) things I noticed:
- Just one thing for tonight, when most of the storylines were readily apparent. The source of the bench players' issues seems to be a lack of understanding as to their respective roles. It's a strange thing to talk about, considering that the key bench contributors are all veterans with many seasons of experience, but Jamal Crawford and Glen Davis are the only players who know and are comfortable with their jobs. Jamal knows he needs to score, and Davis knows he needs to run around and yell at the crowd. The other players look unsure of when to shoot, when to pass, when to dribble, when to trap, when to help, etc. Most bench units are made up of flawed players -- if they weren't flawed, they would probably be starters -- who contribute by focusing on what they do well to mask what they don't. This bench unit has players that exacerbate what they don't do well by refusing to do what they can do well. It's an odd and frustrating thing, but it's something that gives me an irrational optimism that they can turn it around. There are still 37 games remaining, and these bench players (I'm looking at you, Hawes and Hedo) are still the players we figured they would be pre-season. It's just time that they remembered it themselves.