Playing at an unusual time, the Clippers’ first-quarter performance featured strong, confident play mixed with sloppy inconsistency. When they righted the ship in the second half, it didn’t seem as though that sloppy inconsistency would rear its ugly head again. It did though—both on the court and on the sideline, as a combination of poor effort, execution, and decision making led the Clippers to blow an 18-point fourth-quarter lead and waste a win that they’d already earned against the Sacramento Kings.
After yesterday’s big victory over the Utah Jazz, a game that granted the Clippers the tiebreaker in the teams’ narrow race for the 4-seed, the Clippers were faced with an unusual scheduling quirk: back-to-back matinee games. Players normally dislike 12:30 PM starts because it disrupts their tried and true pre-game routines, where an entire 24-hour period is built around preparation: the right amount of sleep, good, nutritious meals at the right times, and a practiced series of warmup routines. Players also dislike back-to-backs, where their the preparation for the second game has to be abridged as they recover from the first game. You can imagine how thrilled these guys were to see consecutive afternoon games on the schedule.
Still, as disruptive as matinee games might be to the players’ routines, the Clippers are a perfect 5-0 in such games this season, so they can’t complain too much.
The early start might be one explanation for Blake Griffin’s erratic first quarter, featuring a strong finish against rookie Skal Labissiere, but also a blown open layup, and a couple of nice jumpers in conjunction with a couple of sloppy turnovers. The Clippers were building a small buffer, but Paul Pierce fouled Anthony Tolliver for a four-point play late in the quarter that helped Sacramento pull even after 12 minutes of play, 24-24. In a lackluster second quarter, the Clippers, despite a nice period from Marreese Speights, allowed a 7-point deficit. Jamal Crawford, after carrying the second unit with an epic performance against the Jazz, missed his first five shots and ended just 1-8 from the field. Ultimately, the starters’ return provided a spark as L.A. closed the quarter on an 11-2 run to emerge from the half with a 46-44 lead.
After halftime, the Clippers seemed to finally wake up. The starters jumped out early on the Kings, building a double-digit lead that would persist through the end of the period. Darren Collison briefly floated Sacramento’s offense, making his first eight shots from the field, but as his shots finally began to miss, the Clippers were able to create separation. The second unit was able to extend the Clippers’ 11-point lead early in the fourth, and garbage time looked imminent.
A late spurt by Sacramento cut the deficit to 9 with three minutes remaining, and then the Kings went full March Madness: Buddy Hield hit a three, then got a steal and hit another in the corner to bring his team within three. Then, following a split pair of Blake Griffin free throws, Langston Galloway hit a three moments later to pull Sacramento within one. Late-game chaos on the Clippers’ end of the floor led to bad misses and turnovers, and the Kings got a runout in the closing seconds that was capped off by a Willie Cauley-Stein putback with 1.8 seconds to play. The Kings, after trailing the entire half, led by one point, and the Clippers would have one shot to win it.
Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan took the floor for the final two ticks of the clock. Felton inbounded the ball, finding Chris Paul for a 20-foot jumper off of a downscreen. The shot was online, but just an inch too strong, and the Clippers’ collapse was complete.
Notably, Doc Rivers used a nine-man rotation for much of this game. In the last couple of weeks, he has played the obvious 9 rotation pieces, with Paul Pierce getting a look at backup PF as Wesley Johnson and Brandon Bass have found themselves out of the rotation at that position. Tonight, with J.J. Redick sitting out and Austin Rivers starting in his place, Doc had options on his bench to fill the void: Alan Anderson is capable of playing those SG and SF minutes that Austin normally plays, and Wesley Johnson can play small forward. Instead, Doc limited his rotation, leaving Anderson and Johnson stranded on the bench with big men Brandon Bass and Brice Johnson until the 7:00 mark of the fourth quarter, when Bass relieved Speights.
And speaking of Bass entering the game, it felt a little early for garbage time...
It's actually a little early to bring Bass on for Speights, with the Clippers holding just a 14-point lead and 7 minutes left— Clips Nation (@ClipsNationSBN) March 26, 2017
Who knew how prescient that tweet would be—Bass finished -11 in 5 minutes and the Clippers lost the fourth quarter by 12 and the game by 1.
Austin Rivers made his first two triples to help the Clippers’ sputtering offense early, but overall had a subpar game as the starting shooting guard, going 4-13 for 10 points. He did contribute 3 assists and 8 rebounds, a welcome sign for a Clippers guard, and he made Doc Rivers’ 9-man rotation possible by playing double duty with the first and second units, totaling 40 minutes.
Now, following this disappointing and embarrassing (and quite possibly psychologically scarring) loss, the Clippers’ home-court aspirations, which were so optimistic just hours ago, are suddenly in question. While they still own the tiebreaker against the Utah Jazz, they gave away another game in the standings, now trailing by two losses with only a handful of games left for each team. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who were run out of the building by the Houston Rockets today, were still able to keep pace in the loss column with the Clippers due to this collapse.
Most important, though, is how blown leads and close losses continue to define this team. Ever since they blew that massive fourth-quarter lead against the Houston Rockets in game 6 of the second round in 2015, en route to blowing a 3-1 lead and being eliminated, it seems as though the trauma of late-game situations has been too much to bear for the Clippers. It’s too small of a sample size to draw any reasonable conclusion, but the Clippers have now dropped three games in recent weeks by one point because they failed to score on the final possession. Furthermore, they continue to tighten up down the stretch of close games—even with Sacramento’s hot shooting down the stretch, the Clippers would have won if their last three minutes of offense didn’t read like this:
Jamal Crawford missed 21-foot two-point jumper
Blake Griffin bad pass
Blake Griffin makes free throw 1 of 2
Blake Griffin misses free throw 2 of 2
Shot clock turnover
Chris Paul misses 23-foot jumper
Jamal Crawford misses 25-foot three-point jumper
Chris Paul misses 21-foot jumper
Even the Kings’ last bucket, which was the go-ahead gamewinner, didn’t come on a tough, well-defended shot. The Clippers failed to get back on defense following Jamal Crawford’s rushed three late in the shot clock of a failed possession, and then allowed an offensive rebound when Ben McLemore missed the initial attempt.
The Clippers beat themselves. The execution, decision making, and effort were not consistently there, even in the most crucial closing moments of the game. And Doc Rivers’ failed substitution patterns exacerbated the problem. Despite a mountain of evidence that it does not work, Rivers continues to play Paul Pierce and Jamal Crawford together, handing opponents a guaranteed run in the second and fourth quarters of each game. The second unit was successful in yesterday’s game against the Jazz, but not because of the unit—because Jamal Crawford got hot. It would be nice for Doc Rivers to build a rotation without 12-18 minutes of lineups that play matador defense and rely upon Jamal Crawford’s streaky offense to help them keep up. It would be nice for a coach, knowing that the Clippers have two days off after today, to not assume that a game is over because his subs hold a 14-point lead with 7 minutes remaining, and not insert third-string players in unusual lineups that facilitate a comeback.
It would be nice to have this game back.