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Sloppy Clippers Succumb to Cavorting Celtics, 107-102

A weekend matinee turned out predictably for the struggling Clippers, who are now 1-4 since Blake Griffin returned.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

In Paul Pierce’s final game in Boston, the Clippers came out slow and disjointed and never found enough consistency to muster up a long enough stretch of competent basketball on both ends to overcome the Celtics.

The game opened with Pierce missing his once-trademark mid-post fadeaway, then Jae Crowder hitting a fading 3 from the corner with DeAndre Jordan all over. Contrary to what you might expect, this sequence was not a microcosm of the rest of the game.

Although Pierce’s touching three at the end of the game came as Isaiah Thomas intentionally played off to give him an open look, the Celtics had no such moral compunction about deferring to him during his only other stint of the game, in the first five minutes. They forced defensive switches searching for him, then relentlessly attacked him, jumping out to a quick 15-6 lead that they would never relinquish.

Not all of this can be blamed on Pierce, though. The Clippers’ starting backcourt of Austin Rivers and J.J. Redick struggled all game, finishing with 11 points on an abysmal 3-17 combined. Redick was never really able to shed the Celtics’ dogged wing defenders, with most of the credit going to rookie Jaylen Brown. Meanwhile, Rivers missed a number of makeable shots but also could’ve done a better job attacking off the bounce.

Without Chris Paul and facing a team stocked with plus perimeter defenders, the Clippers’ struggles to generate offensive penetration weren’t unexpected. For some reason, the Clippers never went at Isaiah Thomas on defense the way they could have. Thomas’s defensive deficiencies are famous, but L.A. did a poor job of seeking him out and isolating his guy. While they had their moments guarding him in the fourth quarter, he still finished the game with 28 points (on 24 scoring opportunities) and 8 assists.

The game ball for the Clippers goes to Raymond Felton, who played well on both sides of the ball and did the best job on Thomas. His 16/5/4 statline helped pace the Clips, and the offense had noticeably more flow whenever he was running the show.

Blake Griffin also deserves some credit, but struggled through long stretches of the game outside of strong opening and closing quarters. He did a great job hedging on Thomas in the final frame, even forcing him into a backcourt violation at one point, but his defense overall continued to suffer (as have most of the Clippers’, including DeAndre Jordan).

Finally, kudos do have to be given to Jamal Crawford, who recaptured some of the old magic after a slow start and was a big part of why the Clippers didn’t fold like a house of cards early on. He made a number of big shots and was also active in the passing lanes, forcing three steals.

After going down as much as 15 late in the first quarter, the second unit helped bring the Clippers back by slowly chipping at the deficit. Wes Johnson threw in a surprising 7 points on 3-3 shooting, stroking the ball with confidence and bringing the Clippers back within six. At this point the starters returned, and a few Celtics buckets responded with a 10-0 run that made it a two-point game.

It was still a one possession game with two minutes left in the half, and it looked like this would remain a tight, competitive game the rest of the way. Instead, the Clippers committed a few mental errors and the Celtics took advantage by nailing open threes (a franchise-record 52 attempts on the day) and snatching timely offensive rebounds on long bounces (another area where Chris Paul’s presence was sorely missed). Suddenly, the lead was back in double digits before a Blake Griffin buzzer-beater kept it to 9 going into halftime.

This dynamic would continue the rest of the afternoon. Every time the Clippers seemed poised to make a run, the same pattern unfolded. After falling behind by 13 midway through the 3rd, they pulled within 8 before the Celtics unleashed another run to push it back to 18. The Clippers hung around just enough to keep the outcome in doubt, displeasing the Boston faithful who spent most of the second half chanting for Paul Pierce to be put back in.

The Clippers’ final push saw them still facing a double digit deficit under two minutes, before getting within 4 with 40 seconds left. A questionable foul on Marreese Speights (a team-high +15) sent Isaiah Thomas to the line, and the Clippers failed to connect on the ensuing possession, effectively ending the game.

Finally, Doc Rivers obliged the fans of his former team, and a scoreless Pierce responded with one final make, ensuring that he would retire having scored in every game he ever played in the T.D. Garden. It was a heartwarming moment for everyone but a few curmudgeons and the unlucky bettors who put money on the Celtics covering the spread.

With the loss, the Clippers fell a full game behind Utah for the 4th seed, and now only stand two losses ahead of Memphis and Oklahoma City. They now head to Toronto for a SEGABABA against the reeling Raptors, who pulled out an eight-point win over the moribund Nets earlier this afternoon.