I sent a text message today that said the Clippers’ season could hinge on the 5-game stretch that they’re in the middle of right now.
Beginning in Atlanta on Wednesday, and ending December 2nd in Dallas, the NBA schedule makers gave the Clippers five consecutive games against some of the NBA’s worst teams. In an alternate universe, the Clippers avoided their recent spat of injuries and accompanying 9-game losing streak, and are using this stretch to build a winning streak and beef up their win total. Instead, they’re fighting for every inch against these teams to try and claw back towards .500.
Five straight wins during this stretch (three more after Wednesday’s victory in Atlanta and tonight’s last-second triumph in Sacramento) would leave the Clippers at 10-11 early in December, right at the cusp of .500 and the 8th seed in the Western Conference. If they drop the next three winnable games, they’ll be looking at a 7-14 record, requiring a 37-24 close to the season to finish with 44 wins, which may or may not be enough to secure a first-round sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
Needless to say, tonight’s game against the Kings was just as crucial as any of the immediately upcoming contests, which is why I noted in my halftime Facebook Live Q&A that tonight’s game was one where the Clippers couldn’t afford to roll over after a rough first-half performance. The 82-game NBA season is long, and the Clippers were down 14 points at halftime after shooting just 1-14 from deep compared to the Kings’ red-hot 7-10. Sometimes, nights like these come along, and you lose.
Not tonight. The Clippers came into the third quarter with the unique fire of a team with their backs against the wall, and they stifled the Kings defensively, going on a 29-4 run that built L.A. a buffer of their own. It’s not possible to play with that fire for 82 games, or often even for a full 48 minutes, but the Clippers were able to pull it out and play up to their potential for just long enough to handle Sacramento tonight.
The game was almost snatched away at the last moment by Kings guard Buddy Hield, who had 16 of his 27 points and 4 of his 7 made threes in the final 6 minutes of the game. There isn’t always much you can do to stop a shooter of Hield’s caliber when he gets hot—the best way to counteract it is to play well enough over the course of the game to build a buffer, and then just absorb the explosion. The Clippers’ lead was just enough to soak up Buddy’s scoring burst and leave the teams tied with 14 seconds left.
Blake Griffin drove to his left, stepped back, and hit a fallaway jumper over Willie Cauley-Stein for his 32nd and 33rd points of the night. A last-second Hield hoist was deterred by the presence of DeAndre Jordan, and the Clippers narrowly escaped.
Blake was the Clippers’ best player all night leading to his second gamewinner of the season, finishing with 33 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds.
Additionally, the team continued to benefit from the decision to start Austin Rivers and Lou Williams together. Doc still has to sit them for stretches, leaving the team in the shaky and unproven hands of rookie backups Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell, and he staggered Rivers and Williams to mitigate that, but starting the veterans together prevents defenses from focusing on just Austin, opening up the game for both of them. Even though Lou had a poor start, his presence allowed Austin to play more freely and post 7 first-quarter points—and then Lou picked up the slack later when Austin slowed down, hitting four threes in the third quarter.
Perhaps most importantly, both Austin and Lou were able to rack up assists tonight, finishing with 7 and 8, respectively. They also both turned the ball over a lot—4 for Austin and 6 for Lou—but that’s to be expected when guys are asked to do more distributive work than they’re accustomed to. I feel confident in saying that poor three-point shooting was a far greater disadvantage to the offense tonight than turnovers.
Even though the tremendous third-quarter run and Blake’s game-winning shot leave this game as an overall positive memory, things are far from perfect. Doc Rivers continues to struggle to find a consistently positive lineups when he goes to his bench (a Jawun Evans-Lou Williams-Sindarius Thornwell-Montrezl Harrell-Willie Reed experiment ended miserably in the second quarter tonight), and the overall team defense leaves a ton to be desired. Without Patrick Beverley, DeAndre Jordan is left covering for a squad composed of average-at-best individual defenders, and unlike shooting and distribution, that isn’t a problem that will be solved by the return of injured starters Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari. It will be up to the team to build a defense that’s greater than the sum of its parts—and even then, it’s unlikely that the Clippers will be a good defensive team this season.
Finally, the Clippers can return to a brief home stand after playing 8 of their last 9 games on the road and struggling through much of it. They’ll play the Lakers and Jazz Monday and Thursday nights at STAPLES Center before heading on the road again to start December.