It’s never easy. It is never easy. When you’re without two of your best players, the road is always going to be a tough one to traverse. Tonight, the Los Angeles Clippers came out on the positive side of the ledger despite trailing by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter against an Orlando Magic squad that was giving them fits for large stretches of the night. In the end, a win is a win. But a win without two huge pieces, and one that saw you overcome adversity, is a win that you can snuggle up to on a cold December evening.
|Los Angeles Clippers||22||31||21||29||103|
The early parts of this game were back-and-forth affair. The Clippers looked like they were going to be competitive all night, but only if they could stop the likes of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo from getting to the rim repeatedly. For the first half, that didn’t happen. Payton totaled 11 points and Oladipo had 10 in a first half that saw the Clippers go into the locker room with a three point lead – a margin that was the doing of Wesley Johnson’s prodigious three-point shooting, Blake Griffin’s all-around play, and Jamal Crawford’s raw shot making ability.
The third quarter was a frustrating one as the good guys looked to extend their lead. Instead, all that happened was Orlando going on a huge run that flipped the tables. After going just 1-of-7 from three in the first half, the Magic were 4-of-7 in the third quarter alone thanks to makes by Channing Frye, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, and Victor Oladipo. When the latter two are hitting those shots, it might not be your night. The defense by the Clippers was lazy, out of sorts, and just bad. It carried over into the early parts of the fourth quarter.
Looking to build upon their five point lead after 36 minutes, the Magic used a quick 10-3 run to push the lead up to 12 with 9:15 to go. It was fueled by an Oladipo layup, two Shabazz Napier free throws, an Aaron Gordon jumper, a thunderous Gordon putback dunk, and an Oladipo jumper. Then Wesley Johnson hit his sixth three ball of the night to trim it under double-digits. However, it was then pushed back up to double-digits with 5:26 to go when Gordon leaked out for a fast break layup after three Clippers players just sat and watched. It looked bleak. A loss looked on the way. But then something strange happened – the team started to play with energy, passion, and a will to win that seemed to have escaped them throughout the game.
The Clippers went on a 13-0 run in 2:05 of game time. It started with a Blake Griffin layup that was followed by two Jamal Crawford free throws. After that, there was a DeAndre Jordan alley-oop dunk, two more Crawford free throws, a Crawford three after an offensive rebound, and, finally, a Crawford layup. In that span of 125 seconds, Crawford chipped in with 9 points and the crowd was roaring. It also helped that the team forced Gordon, Oladipo, and Payton to keep taking jumpers – which is exactly what you want them to do even if they’re making them.
Thankfully, the Clippers never trailed again. However, it didn’t come without worry. Tobias Harris trimmed the lead to just one after a pair of free throws with just under two minutes to go, but Blake Griffin hit a huge mid-range jumper to push it back to three, which Jason Smith answered with an offensive rebound tip-in. With 13 seconds to go, Wesley Johnson forced Harris into a highly-contested jumper that fell off the mark. Crawford split a pair of free throws, and then Oladipo missed a deep two to tie with just under 5 seconds to go while DeAndre Jordan contested it. Austin Rivers got the rebound, split his free throws, and the Clippers fouled to prevent a game-tying three-point attempt by Orlando. Elfrid Payton made the first, intentionally missed the second, but the Clippers got the ball after a scrum out of bounds. When the buzzer sounded after the ensuing inbounds, Los Angeles had a 103-101 victory.
Everyone’s going to look at Blake Griffin’s stat line of 28 points, 13 rebounds, and 7 assists on 11-of-22 shooting as if he was the Player of the Game for the Clippers. However, he was far from it. While he hit a massive shot down the stretch, and was everywhere on the floor statistically, his effort was lacking in some areas – noticeably on defense. That doesn’t take away from what he did in the game, or even down the stretch. He rebounded, passed, and hit a huge shot that the team needed. It’s quite scary that he can have this game and still not be one of the top players for the team tonight.
The top honor is a tie. Jamal Crawford was absolutely sensational offensively. He took good shots, got to good spots, and ultimately finished with a game-high 32 points on 10-of-19 from the field and 6-of-9 from three. He also chipped in with 5 assists. He lit it up. It was definitely needed. The other guy who balled out tonight was Wesley Johnson. The often overlooked wing finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on 6-of-12 from the field (all from three). Johnson was the key tonight. His early shooting kept the team afloat, and he played impactful defense down the stretch while also crashing the glass. They don’t win the game without him or Crawford. Awesome job by both in vastly different ways.
DeAndre Jordan finished with 15 points, 14 rebounds, and 1 block on 7-of-10 shooting. The upside is that he only attempted three free throws, so thank you for not going to Hack-a-Jordan, Scott Skiles. While his numbers look great, he was often lazy on his defensive rotations and was extremely lackadaisical when it came to boxing out. It didn’t haunt them tonight, but he has to be better. Jordan’s getting paid max money and, while he hasn’t been awful this year, he hasn’t been as great as he was last season.
Honestly, no one else really showed up for the team offensively. Austin Rivers finished with 5 points, but he was just 2-of-7 and was abysmal on that end. Thankfully, his hounding defensive style more than made up for it – as it often does. Josh Smith had 2 points, but was just 1-of-4. And, that’s it for the scoring. No one else scored a single point. Luc Mbah a Moute, Lance Stephenson, Pablo Prigioni, and Paul Pierce played a combined 57:23 of game action and scored a combined 0 points. Stephenson couldn’t build off of his exquisite last game, and none of the others did much at all. Basically, this was only a four-man show offensively tonight. And, often times, it was only three guys doing the job. Quite remarkable they got the win.
This was another tough loss in a season filled with some brutally tough losses for Orlando. Victor Oladipo led the way for them with 24 points, while also having 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks – including one on an Austin Rivers dunk attempt that is probably still crashing back down to the earth. He got into the paint, even hit some jumpers, but he ultimately couldn’t finish the game off with a win despite that. He did seem to tweak his ankle late in the game, and it led to him coming out with 4:48 to go and Orlando up by 7. By the time he came back in, the Magic were down by 3 and time was running out. Still, he played well.
Elfird Payton also played well, finishing with 21 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals on 9-of-18 shooting. He, like Oladipo, also hit jumpers tonight that the Clippers just had to live with. You can’t let those two get to the rim and kill you there, but it didn’t matter because they did that anyways. It honestly didn’t matter who defended against either guy. They both sliced up the defense. The Clippers survived the barrage from the talented duo, but you could see the glimpses of greatness in each guy. If their jumpers start to pick up, then the league might have a whole new problem on their hands.
The only other players to stand out for Orlando were the bench trio of Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson, and Aaron Gordon. Those three combined for 24 points on 19 shots, and each finished with a positive plus-minus. Orlando’s bench is tough, and they made a difference tonight. Gordon was all over the hustle plays as he tallied 10 points and 7 rebounds. Nicholson had 6 points and 7 rebounds himself, while Smith haunted the Clippers in the mid-range to the tune of 8 points and 5 rebounds, as well as 2 blocks. The trio is quite good, and you can see where the team is headed thanks to a bench unit that can be physical, energetic, and defensive-minded.
The four starters alongside Payton struggled. Tobias Harris finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but only shot 3-of-13. Channing Frye had just 3 points and 1 rebound in 17:17. Nikola Vucevic had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes, but he was just 4-of-10 from the field. And, lastly, Evan Fournier only had 7 points on 2-of-5 shooting in 16:33. He was pretty much a nonfactor all night outside of one three that he hit in the third quarter spurt for Orlando. The foundation is there for the Magic to be a tough out in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. A little more tweaking, a little more working, and this team will be contenders on that side of the bracket for a long, long time.
Now, the team embarks on a 5-game road trip that sees them play the Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, and Detroit Pistons. It will not be an easy stretch, especially since there’s zero word on when Chris Paul or J.J. Redick are coming back. The talk is, as of right now, that Redick might be able to play on Monday night against Minnesota, but no one knows for certain. As of this second, the team is 11-9 and somehow in the 4-seed right now. They’re just one game back in the loss column, and a half-game overall, of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Basically, the middle of the Western Conference is murkier than ever.
Wins without Paul or Redick are tough, but wins without both of them are far rarer. Enjoy these ones. Wins like tonight don’t happen all too often. The team was down by double-digits with less than half of the final quarter to go, but they gutted it out, fought back, and ultimately pulled a win out of the jaws of defeat. In a race that seems like it could come down to the wire, this win might be looked at quite fondly when we get to March and April. But, one game at a time. Stay focused on the task ahead. Get better and grow each and every game. We’ll get to March and April when we get to March and April. Until then, together we will.