Down 19 midway through the second quarter, with Chicago’s offense looking extra bullish and Dwyane Wade seemingly having the Midas Touch blessing his every jump shot and three-pointer, the Clippers had every excuse to pack it in, on a SEGABABA after a tough rivalry game in Sacramento the previous night. For a moment, it looked like they were going to fold.
Instead, they maintained their composure like the grizzled veteran team they are, slowly pushing their way back into the game, refusing to give up when they stumbled or when the Bulls beat back one run after another. They ended the half on a 21-7 run to push the gap all the way back down to 5, leaving the door open for a second half comeback.
The Clippers didn’t fundamentally change anything about their approach coming out of halftime. They were still totally inept in keeping the Bulls off the offensive glass, they still made tons of unforced errors, and their energy still flagged at times. But they were able to string together enough sequences of good basketball to make up the gap, while the Bulls’ lava-hot shooting regressed to room temperature.
They cut the lead to as little as one late in the third quarter, but Chicago responded by rattling off six straight to restore their cushion. Both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul played the entire frame, and when they came off leaving a five-point deficit, things still looked shaky for the Clips. Their bench units had been laid waste to in the first half, and they desperately needed someone to step up and keep them alive in the fourth quarter against the Bulls’ reserves-plus-Wade second unit.
Enter Marreese Speights, who erupted for 11 points in the final quarter (and all of his season-high 16 in the second half), including a three-pointer with his feet planted several feet behind the arc. Raymond Felton made a few plays, and even Paul Pierce got into the mix with a turnaround jumper in the lane (after horribly clanking an earlier three-point attempt, of course). That group cut the lead to 2, and showed enough that Doc Rivers chose to leave Speights, Austin Rivers, and Jamal Crawford in with Paul and Griffin to close the game.
“It was one of those games where you try to throw out any coaching book and just throw guys out there until you find the right combination,” Doc said after the game (via Clippers PR).
In an ugly game, the reserves turned out to be the spark that helped the Clippers go over the top and finish the comeback. Not only did they provide timely buckets, they helped out on the defensive end too, holding the Bulls to 4-18 from the field in the final quarter (although Chicago still grabbed 5 offensive rebounds and 9 free throw attempts for Butler and Wade).
Once again, the Clippers made their fair share of mistakes in the final few minutes (including what could have been a costly technical foul on CP3). But this time, they made just enough big plays on the other end to come away with the win, most notably a massive offensive rebound by Mo Speights that resulted in an acrobatic reverse layup from Jamal, putting L.A. up five with 50 seconds to go.
Everyone knows about the Clippers’ struggles in the clutch, to the point where it’s become a nationally known narrative based more in meme than in fact. Due to a few high-profile meltdowns, most people don’t realize how good the Clippers usually are in those situations (last year in particular).
That being said, as fans we’ve been conditioned to expect the worst at the end of close games. And for as dominant as they’ve been for most of the opening few weeks of the season, the Clippers haven’t assuaged our fears with a signature performance when the games have tightened up.
In matches at Portland, Memphis, and Sacramento, they let the opponent back within shouting distance in the closing minutes. They committed a comedy of errors in their loss to the Thunder, and tempted fate with several more miscues in the rematch. Against Memphis on Wednesday, they roared back from a double-digit deficit to briefly take the lead late in the game, but again threw away a victory in the final minute.
There were a lot of parallels between this game and the recent Grizzlies loss, but this time the Clippers managed to complete the comeback. Instead of ending up disadvantaged by late calls, this time they got the benefit of the whistle, as a foul on Butler with 20 seconds left bailed out a terrible Clippers possession that ended up in a desperation fadeaway jumper from Blake.
The triumphant comeback against Chicago on Saturday night goes a long way towards washing out some of the sour taste left in our mouths from the last few games, even if the process was the same and only the results changed.
The Clippers need to keep grinding out wins in games like this if they want to stay at the top of the West. It seems like the fatigue caused by their ceaseless schedule is starting to take its toll on the floor, but they haven’t let it affect them in the standings yet.