In the spirit of Harold Pinter, let’s tell the story of this tragedy in reverse.
- [4th, 0:06.6] This game ends for the Clippers the way it begins — with a Zach Randolph airball from 27 feet. What do the Clippers want, down two points with a hair over six seconds remaining? According to Mike Dunleavy, “We ran a side out-of-bounds play to try to get the ball into Baron.” That appears to be the intent: Baron starts along the baseline, with Randolph, Novak, and Thornton in a sort of line set across the stripe. Al, who’s farthest from the inbounder [Gordon], runs to the front side around Randolph/Varejao and Novak/Pavlovic. Meanwhile, Baron sprints up from down low, trying to shake loose of LeBron around the Randolph/Noak stack. Baron tries to split them, but the whole ordeal is clumsy — LeBron actually beats Baron around the screens, making any attempted inbounds pass to Baron impossible. Eric is stuck. He could go to Thornton on the near side wing, but Williams — who’s guarding him — has cut off that angle. Finally, Randolph steps toward the sideline to receive the ball from Gordon. When he does, Eric steps onto the court and asks for it back, only Randolph never looks at him. Never looks at anyone. With the court spread, there’s an nanosecond when you believe Zach might just want to take Varejao off the dribble, but that notion dissolves pretty quickly. Instead, Randolph takes a couple of dribbles, then elevates to launch the shot with exactly 5.0 seconds left. His teammates are perplexed. Al Thornton drops his arms, then after the whistle is blown, looks back as if to confirm he saw what he thinks he saw, then turns around in disgust. Baron looks angry and Eric bemused. 1.6 seconds remain. When Cleveland inbounds the ball, Mo Williams is fouled with 0.00.6, and sinks both FTs, which ices the game.
- [4th, 0:29.7] The failure to execute the inbounds play hurts all the more, because the Clippers lead 83-82 with under thirty seconds left to play. Mo Williams wastes no time in setting a screen to give LeBron a mismatch against Baron Davis, and Baron steps out on LeBron at about :21 game/:16 shot. Baron guards LeBron aggressively — poking at the ball, getting up on James, absorbing the blow of LeBron’s right shoulder as the planet’s best player tries to advance inside against him. At about :13, LeBron executes a hesitation spin move just as he reaches the arc. When he swings around clockwise, he’s gotten the step he wants on Baron. The entire Clippers defense collapses on James as he enters the paint. This leaves the perimeter spread with Joe Smith in the right corner, Daniel Gibson up top, with Mo Williams on the left side. The kickout from LeBron goes to Smith on his right, who sends an overhead pass immediately to Gibson. With Thornton closing on him, Gibson dishes it off the Williams. Randolph is ridiculously late, and Williams nails only his fourth shot of the night from the field in 17 attempts. Cleveland 85, Clippers 83.
- [4th, 0:47.2] The Clippers trail by two, having let an enormous 19-point lead in the fourth quarter evaporate. Cleveland has LeBron James covering the ball. When Baron picks up his dribble with :13 on the shot clocks, Al comes up top to receive the ball, then hand it back to Baron to reset. Baron feeds Randolph in the right post against Varejao. Zach makes nice progress into the paint with a couple of hard left-handed dribbles. Varejao definitely needs help, so the guards converge on Randolph, leaving the perimeter vulnerable. Zach has a choice on the kickout: He’s got Al Thornton straight-away up top, or Fred Jones on the left wing [Jones is in for Gordon, who was shaken up on a previous play]. Randolph chooses Thornton, who drains the 3PA to give the Clippers an 83-82 lead. Once it gets going, this possession is what you’d expect from the Clippers at a crucial juncture in the game — challenging the opponent’s defense by using Randolph one-on-one in the post. There are few defenders who don’t need help on Zach once his incursion into the lane with that left-handed dribble has begun. Forcing defenses to make tough choices is how good teams score on crucial possessions.
- [4th, 1:06] Cleveland leads by a pair, and a basket here would leave the Clippers down two possessions with under a minute, against one the best defensive teams in basketball. The Cavs clear the entire left side to isolate James against Al Thornton. James is deliberate. At about :09, Varejao comes to offer a screen. James moves to the right of it, getting himself some open space for a 19-footer that’s off. LeBron James scores 32, but hits only one shot outside the paint all night.
- [4th, 1:24] The Clippers have coughed up the lead for the first time since the first quarter. Mike Brown’s decision to have James cover Baron leaves Daniel Gibson on Al Thornton. The Clippers try to exploit this matchup on the left side as the ball goes into Al in the post. The Cavs immediately double with Joe Smith [Camby has cleared out]. Thornton throws a dangerous cross-court pass to Gordon out on the left wing against Williams. Eric drives left against Williams, but as he penetrates into the paint, EJ slips on a slick spot and tumbles to the floor. Traveling is called, and Gordon, who is shaken up on the play, has to come out momentarily.
- [4th, 1:34] The Clippers have been on the ropes for latter half of the fourth quarter, but this is the first instance when the game feels like a lost cause. It’s tied, and James will bring the ball up against Al Thornton. The play is a high screen and drag with Varejao. Once James gets Randolph on the switch, he runs at Zach, earning an easy trip to the line where he sinks both, giving the Cavs their first lead. For the most part, Al does a surprisingly good job on LeBron tonight. In many ways, an assignment like LeBron simplifies life for Thornton defensively. Al doesn’t have to worry about rotations, because he’s staying at home at all times. On the pick and roll, Al knows to run underneath on everything. Once decision-making is taken out of the equation, Al can let his length and quickness work. For most of the night, Al accomplishes that.
- [4th, 1:50] For the first time in a couple of hours, the Clippers don’t have a lead. Baron and Chris Kaman run a high S/R on the left side. Baron runs to the right of the pick, with Kaman rolling alongside him to the left. LeBron James — Baron’s man — gets hung up on the Kaman screen, which leaves Joe Smith backpedaling to keep Baron from taking it all the way to the hole. As Baron glides down the lane, he dishes it off to an open Kaman on his left. Kaman elevates for the 8-footer, but Varejao closes in a hurry, gets a piece of the ball, which touches Chris before rolling out of bounds. We see Kaman struggle much of the night as his footwork and agility — assets when Chris is healthy — just aren’t there. He finishes with six points [3-11 FG; 0-0 FT] and four turnovers, and looks particularly slow elevating [i.e. 2nd, 4:08]. After 28 minutes of full-contact play and his timing off, Kaman should probably have been relieved by Marcus Camby, head fluid and all. It’s not unreasonable to say that keeping Chris in the game might have cost the Clippers a win.
- [4th, 1:58] Off a turnover, the Cavs don’t immediately look to push it up, but once they see a lackadaisical Clippers defense getting back, James rushes the ball into the frontcourt. As he crosses halfcourt with the ball, James passes it off left to Mo Williams, who swings it to a wide, wide open Daniel Gibson. His 3PA is good and the Clippers give up a lead they’ve had since the 6:31 mark of the first quarter.
- [4th, 2:31] With a 3-point Clippers’ lead and possession, the ball goes into Kaman in the post against Joe Smith. Kaman’s baseline spin move isn’t nearly as nimble as it is when he’s healthy. Even though Chris gets Smith to bite on a little ball-fake, Smith recovers because Chris can’t lift his shoulder quickly enough again for the real attempt. The shot clanks off the top of the window, then the front rim before landing in Kaman’s hands again with a fresh 24. Instead of resetting, Kaman throws the ball into traffic, and it ends up in the hands of Mo Williams.
- [4th, 2:49] Down by five, the Cavs first try a James/Varejao high S/R, but Al’s been proficient all night defending those screens and again he recovers nicely here, sparing Randolph the humiliation. James kicks the ball out to Smith up top, who sends it over to the far side up top to Williams. Once Smith does this, he sets a screen at the top of the arc for James to swing around. With a full head of steam — always when he’s most dangerous — James curls around the Smith screen, gets the ball from Williams, then breezes past Kaman with Thornton trailing. Easy layup.
How does it get to this point? Turnovers and horrendous shot selection in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers commit only three turnovers in the first half, but cough the ball up 12 times in the second half. At [4th, 4:45] Zach Randolph tries to pass out of the post to Al Thornton cutting down the lane. This is a set identical to the one at [2nd, 2:34] which Randolph and Thornton run to perfection, resulting in a massive right-handed jam by Al. Here, in the crucial moments of the fourth quarter, Randolph’s ill-fated attempt deflects off the fingers of Mo Williams and into the hands of Daniel Gibson. Once the ball gets ahead to LeBron James in the open floor, the lead is cut to five.
When the Clips aren’t turning it over in the final frame, they’re settling for long and/or contested jumpers. There’s Zach’s second of three airballs from beyond the arc [4th, 5:45], an airball from Al on a 12-footer surrounded by the entire Cavs defense, and the familiar Baron Davis step-back 3PA [4th, 8:17]. Mike Taylor, whose engine was running a little hot for a controlled game against Cleveland, tries to create in traffic against the Cavs’ bigs, tossing up a silly circus shot with some faint illusion of drawing a foul.
Defensively in the fourth quarter, the Clippers begin to lose their bearings, and get very lazy on the glass. The Cavs love that James/Ilgauskas S/R. The Clippers have defended it well for most of the night, but here [4th, 9:20] Camby and Jones trap LeBron on the perimeter, leaving Ilgauskas free to wander to that area on the floor at 17 feet he likes. Leaving him open for that shot is bad enough, but Zach Randolph never closes…actually never even recognizes that he’s the help. This allows Ilgauskas to dribble to the rack untouched for a layup drill. At [4th, 10:07], the Cavs run a stagger screen with their two bigs up top on the right side for James. Camby drops into the paint to ready himself for the coming storm, but Kaman drops way, way off Ilgauskas, leaving Z with a shot he knows and loves. Z misses the shot, but Daniel Gibson easily slinks behind Eric Gordon to snag the rebound and lay it up and in. For a player who’s got an incredibly sturdy frame, Eric Gordon gets beaten on the defensive glass more than he should. It’s something he can improve, but it costs the Clippers here.
Over the first three quarters, the Clippers hold Cleveland to 52 points in 70 possessions [that’s 74.3/100 for a team that averages 109.3]. News that Mardy Collins’ plantar fasciitis was hobbling the Clippers’ best wing defender should’ve been the death knell, but Al Thornton plays the best defensive game of his career. He patiently runs under screens and guards the driving lanes, rather than trying to lock onto James as he moves into open space. Baron Davis does a nice job on James on the switch [2nd, 7:20; 2nd, 4:35], and Eric Gordon spends some time covering James, as well, bodying up aggressively at [2nd, 6:09], though James gets a pair of FTAs out of the sequence. EJ exacts his revenge at [3rd, 0:29] when LeBron cruises into the open floor on a 2-on-2 break. Just as James turns his left shoulder to go into his counterclockwise spin move on the dribble, Gordon pokes the ball away, igniting the break the other way — a highlight second only to his sick crossover dribble against Gibson, and subsequent sidestepping of Wally Szczerbiak at the end of the first quarter.
The Clippers don’t do much offensively even before the meltdown, generating only 69 points on 71 possessions through three quarters. Al Thornton stands out, and it’s a textbook evening for him: He finishes with 20 points on 17 attempts at the basket. 17 of the 20 points come from finishing at the rim, the other three points coming on an open 3PA with a perfect follow-through that puts the Clippers back on top with only 30 seconds to go.
After that, Zach Randolph completes the bookends.