With 7:13 to play in the third quarter of tonight’s game, Blake Griffin careened down the court, a one-man fastbreak, and drew a shooting foul on Kawhi Leonard. This play had the potential to be a turning point in tonight’s contest between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers. The Spurs’ superstar forward was whistled for his fifth foul, and took a seat on the bench. The Clippers’ superstar forward stepped up to the line for a pair of free throws that would extend L.A.’s lead to five, beginning a monster individual second half.
Briefly, it looked like the rest of the game would follow that plot line. The Clippers held a 9-point lead at a couple of different points in the mid-third quarter, but they’d score just five points in the final 4:26 of the period, and the Spurs’ second unit would turn that nine-point deficit into a four-point lead at the start of the final period.
After a lackluster second half by the Clippers’ bench (notably featuring dismal performances by Marreese Speights, Jamal Crawford, and Raymond Felton), Doc Rivers turned to his stars early, inserting his complete starting lineup with 10 minutes left in the period. At that point, the Clippers trailed by 8 points. When the final horn sounded, the Clippers lost by 8 points.
Throughout the fourth, the Clippers scrapped in an attempt to come back, but Blake Griffin’s scoring was undone by an inability to get stops, and whenever L.A. seemed to be turning the corner, their guards missed backbreaking shots. Redick was 0-4 in the final frame, including two wide-open three pointers that would have brought the game within reach. Chris Paul had 2 turnovers in the fourth quarter and missed all three of his field goal attempts (although he did earn a trip to the line once). Blake Griffin, for his part, had 11 points in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough.
It seems as though a lack of consistent focus has routinely plagued the Clippers this season, beginning with letdown wins to lottery teams in November and exemplified in nightly lapses on the defensive end. Against elite teams, like the Golden State Warriors last night and the San Antonio Spurs tonight, you have to be diligent to win. Against the Warriors, who are a high-variance offensive juggernaut, the Clippers failed to keep their composure during Golden State’s hottest stretches, exacerbating the problem. Tonight, the Spurs’ consistent technical excellence presented a different challenge. They weren’t going to let the Clippers go on big runs, because the Spurs consistently generated good shots of their own. The Clippers couldn’t maintain consistent focus (or hit enough shots down the stretch) to continue growing the buffer they created in the third period.
Some game notes:
- J.J. Redick is really struggling, and tonight was yet another example. He had 6 points on 2-8 from deep tonight, and most of his misses were practice shots—wide open catch-and-shoot threes, with plenty of time. Every single miss was backbreaking for a struggling Clippers offense.
- Austin Rivers had a tremendous game, scoring 23 points on 8-14 shooting and adding 3 assists. Notably, he played 27 minutes to J.J. Redick’s 32, and Redick was on the floor but rather invisible down the stretch of the fourth quarter. I’m not one to overreact to hot and cold stretches by adjusting the rotation for the next game... but I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the guy with 23 efficient points should be playing down the stretch over the ice cold guy with 6.
- Chris Paul was less-than-stellar in his return, but I think we can forgive a little bit of rust in his first game back from injury. Paul was 6-14 from the field and had 5 assists to 4 turnovers on the night, and largely deferred to Blake Griffin down the stretch.
- After having just 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist in the first half, Blake Griffin finished the game with 29 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. He totally brought it in the second half—and in the fourth quarter—in a way that we aren’t used to seeing from Blake.
The Clippers now have 23 losses, dropping them to 5th place in the West and leaving them 5 losses behind the Houston Rockets. We’ve been dreading this post-All-Star-Weekend back-to-back since August, so it’s no surprise that the Clippers lost ground here, but it would have been nice to come away with tonight’s game. Houston still has two matchups with the Golden State Warriors, while the Clippers won’t play them again, so that will narrow the margin. The biggest games on the schedule, though, are the two head-to-head contests between the Clippers and Rockets. The first is next Wednesday in Los Angeles. If the Clippers win that game, they keep the door ajar and can get close by taking care of business in March. If the Rockets win, it’s time for the Clippers to seriously consider taking it easy, resting guys in some back-to-backs, and setting up shop in 6th place.