A late spurt wasn’t enough for the Clippers, who lost their fourth straight game despite the return of All-Star Point Guard Chris Paul.
Turnovers and poor shooting defined the Clippers’ night, as the Pelicans soared to 29 fast-break points, many uncontested. The Clippers scored just two fast-break points. Los Angeles also shot just 11-37 from beyond the three-point arc, and several key contributors walked away with inefficient lines despite the offense securing plenty of good looks.
Jamal Crawford shot a miserable 3-15 from the field, Mo Speights shot 4-12, Wesley Johnson made just one of his seven attempts. Austin Rivers was more efficient (45% from the field), but you have to question the Clippers’ shot distribution when Austin is shooting twenty times, a season high.
The individual performances from deep were just as disappointing: Paul was 2-7, Rivers 2-8, Johnson 0-2, Speights 2-7, Felton 1-4, and Crawford 0-3. The only two Clippers who shot well from deep were Luc Mbah a Moute (2-4) and Alan Anderson (2-2). It’s nice when Luc and Alan can contribute, especially from deep, but those are the guys who you don’t necessarily expect to space the floor—you need those other guys to show up and hit shots.
The defense wasn’t excellent tonight, either, but it felt like the Pelicans just made some backbreaking shots, especially in the fourth quarter. Rookie Buddy Hield had a splendid night offensively, scoring 17 points on 7-11 shooting while pouring in three of his five attempts from deep. Anthony Davis, for the most part, was held in check, scoring 20 points on 8-16 shooting and contributing just 5 rebounds and an assist.
It wasn’t just Davis that had a poor night rebounding the basketball—it seemed like nobody on the floor was allowed to grab one except for DeAndre Jordan, who had 25 (!) boards. Even that number has a hidden disappointment, though: Jordan had 11 rebounds in the first quarter, and grabbed 11 more in the second and third, heading into the final frame with 22 rebounds. He wasn’t able to continue his dominance with just three in the fourth quarter.
One of those three fourth-quarter rebounds may have been the final difference-making play in the game: with the Clippers surging, Jordan grabbed his final rebound of the night, landed, and threw an outlet pass that was deflected and recovered by Anthony Davis for a layup. With 1:40 left in a 6-point game, the margin of error is practically zero. Killing momentum by giving up a layup after throwing away an outlet pass? That’s a critical error.
The entire weight of the loss doesn’t rest on that DeAndre Jordan turnover, of course. There’s no way that this Clippers team should have been in such a position in the final two minutes where one turnover was so fatal.
Still, despite that error, the Clippers actually ended up with a shot to tie the game. Mysteriously, Chris Paul exited the game with 35 seconds remaining and a 3-point deficit and did not return. When the Clippers secured the defensive rebound and set up their offense, they had to do it without their leader, and the Mo Speights three that the possession ended with was just offline.
Now, L.A. has to face the reality of a difficult schedule and a banged-up roster. The last four games have been a reprieve of sorts—four straight contests (three in Los Angeles) against teams well below .500. The Clippers have now lost all four. The first three games were forgivable, if unpleasant—simultaneous injuries to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick simply left Doc Rivers with a bad roster to work with. Similarly, tonight’s loss wasn’t unbelievably embarrassing: you get cold and lose on the road to a New Orleans team that isn’t good but still features a few dynamic pieces. But when you put the entire picture together, the last six days have been a disaster. The last six days turn a 60-22 team into a 56-26 team. In the Western conference this year, that essentially disqualifies you from the 2-seed and could end up being the difference between the 3-seed and the 4-seed—second-round dates in San Antonio and Oakland.
Maybe this stretch was unavoidable—maybe the team was destined to lose a few straight when unfortunate circumstances struck. That’s exactly what makes the first stretch of bad losses—to Detroit, Brooklyn, Indiana twice, and Washington—all the more inexcusable. You can afford to lose a few games when you’re beat up—every team loses a few games when they’re beat up over the course of an 82-game season. But once you use that allowance on a few “don’t-give-a-shit” games in the early-going, an otherwise-forgettable stretch like these last four games can become season-defining.
Now, the Clippers have a tall task ahead of them: a road back-to-back against the teams that sandwich them in the standings. Houston is now three full losses ahead of the Clippers, which will take time to make up, and this losing streak has dropped the Clippers into a tie with Oklahoma City in the loss column at 12 (yeah, the Clippers have won two more games, but losses mean more than wins at the top).
To pull out two victories in the next two games, still injured and playing their 6th and 7th games in a 10-night stretch, might be nearly impossible. To lose either could prove crippling going forward.
At least, even in the worst-case scenario that features a 6-game losing streak and a plummet to 6th in the standings, we’ll be saying goodbye to 2016 after the Thunder game.