Well, this one was a disappointment. Despite being in the game until late in the third quarter, the Clippers were not able to keep up with the soaring Atlanta Hawks. As a result, the Clippers are still in search of that signature win this season, as it is questionable whether or not beating the Golden State Warriors (lacking both of their rotation centers) at home can really count. They also did not make amends for their heartbreaking loss in Atlanta on December 23rd. When all is said and done, the Clippers let a chance to make a statement both to the entire NBA and to themselves get away. The Hawks absolutely deserved to win the game tonight. Turnovers (21), poor defense (both set and in transition), and shoddy ball movement just obliterated any chance the Clippers had to beat the Hawks. The Hawks destroyed the Clippers from downtown, and the Clippers looked confused and hypnotized by the ball movement of Atlanta. So much talk has been centered on the inconsistency of the Clippers this season, and it is true: they are consistently inconsistent. At this point, it feels like we should be seeing the team begin to build towards something. The way they play now is remarkably similar to the way they played earlier this season. The growth is not there. Yes, some will chalk it up to merely a lack of practice time, but it is not like most NBA teams are practicing every day. It is a good thing that they seem to play their best against lousy opponents, as that is what is keeping them in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Early in the game, it seemed as if the fans at Staples Center were in for a fun night. The Clippers looked sharp offensively, and their defensive rotations seemed solid. Matt Barnes was cutting, Blake Griffin was dunking, and Chris Paul was orchestrating. The night looked promising! Shortly into the period, every starter had scored, and just under three minutes into the quarter, the Clippers had an 11-2 lead. That was pretty much as good as it would get for the home team this evening, despite a handful of subsequent highlight plays (an emphatic block from Jordan, a slick high-low lob from Griffin to Jordan, and a soaring, vintage Griffin dunk). The Hawks did not get rattled and would keep the game close until near the end of the third quarter, which is when the Hawks made their run. The Clippers clung to narrow leads after each of the first two periods, but there was never a sense that the Hawks could not win the game. The Hawks played better as the game went on, while the Clippers lost their mojo and their poise.
Despite the promising start, Griffin and Paul could not get into an offensive groove. Griffin did get to the line 18 times (converting a solid 14 of them), but his five turnovers sort of negated his contribution to the game, and he made just over a third of his field goal attempts. Paul had a fairly rough night (despite earning a double-double of 10 points and 10 assists), fouling out in the final frame after spending most of the third quarter on the bench due to foul trouble. The Clippers need these two players to be dominant in these big games. For all their purported lack of star power, the Hawks are fortunate that they rely on a balanced offensive attack. They do not seem to need heroics from their players. The Clippers definitely rely on their stars, and it is difficult for them to win when Griffin and Paul are off their respective games. A bright spot for the Clippers this evening was Jordan (7 of 7 from the field for 15 points, no turnovers, 3 blocks, and 16 rebounds), and he has probably been the most consistent Clipper all season. The Clippers would be totally lost on defense without him, although next season he ought to read the scouting report on Pero Antic (getting a hand up when he shoots threes would be a good idea).
What is so disappointing is that this game was lost at the end of the third quarter, with the Clippers falling apart at the seams. The Clippers lost all sense of offensive flow and purpose, just as Atlanta really started to find their rhythm. The Clippers committed turnover after turnover (with the Hawks committing just 12 of them), and their defensive rotations and effort totally broke down. The Hawks were getting almost every shot they wanted, making a scorching 48.1% (!) of their threes for the game, compared to just 28% from the Clippers. A key to the game was containing the three-point onslaught, and the Clippers clearly failed to do so. Many of these threes were uncontested.
Atlanta also showed that their team has another gear defensively, which the Clippers have yet to prove that they too possess. As the saying goes, teams can always rely on their defense. This is a lesson that the Clippers need to take to heart. The Hawks dialed up the defensive intensity as the game went on, and the Clippers collapsed under the weight of that kind of pressure. This has been a trend this season, and the Clippers must dig deep and find that grittiness that allowed them to be the comeback kids so many times last year. This means that the Clippers need to get stops. It is useless to trade baskets when down double digits.
DeMarre Carroll stood out for the Hawks again this game, and his play was a reason why Atlanta was able to fight back from their early deficit. The brainy (who knew he was working towards a master's degree?) small forward seemed to be everywhere on both ends of the court. If the Clippers can find their own version of Carroll, that would be wonderful. No one knew that he was such a special player until he came to the Hawks, so it is not inconceivable that there is another diamond in the rough out there for Los Angeles. Future All-Star Jeff Teague (the Eastern Conference Player of the Week), looked to be having a quiet first half, but he really caught fire in the second half, with Paul struggling to contain him.
It has been an irksome subplot this season, but the second unit of the Clippers was again disappointing. It would have been great to see the Clippers' reserves break out this game and play well. Jordan Farmar continues to have his supporters, or at least people who still believe that he is an NBA-caliber point guard, but this stat line from him from tonight is just too common this season: 0 points (0 of 5 shooting) with no free throw attempts. Farmar has proven that he can help a team, but he is definitely having a weird season. The Clippers have always been spoiled by having enviable backups for Paul, so perhaps expectations are unreasonable. However, when Paul is in foul trouble (as he was tonight), Farmar has to be able to run an offense. To be fair, he did not get much help from Spencer Hawes (3 points on 1 of 6 shooting, 3 rebounds, 3 turnovers) or Jamal Crawford (10 points on 3 of 9 shooting, 1 assist, 2 turnovers). This unit has to find some way to contribute to big games, both offensively and defensively.
On a closing note, the marquee match-up of the game (J.J. Redick vs. Kyle Korver) was anticlimactic. Korver made half of his six three-point attempts, but he had more of a quietly effective night. He did have an impressive four assists with only one turnover. Redick made just one of four three-point attempts, but he had five turnovers. Korver wins this round, and it is safe to say that he has won the war this season.
Fortunately, Los Angeles has over half of the season left to find that "other level," which will be necessary when the playoffs begin. They can start by not overlooking their hallway rivals, the Lakers, on Wednesday.