Gutsy. That’s exactly how the Clippers played tonight. Absolutely, positively, undeniably gutsy. When presented with multiple opportunities to simply roll over and die, the Clippers refused and continued to scrap against a far superior team. One of the most disheartening things about this season is that the team often appears to have no desire. Good teams hit them hard, and they never get back up off the mat. Tonight, against our biggest rival, we pick ourselves off the mat and swing back.
Let’s get right to it. The Lakers use a timeout with 5:52 left in the game so they can rest their starters. Earlier in the second quarter, the young group of Mike Taylor, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, Steve Novak, and DeAndre Jordan play even ball with the talented Lakers bench for about a 7 minute stretch. Now, with a 19 point deficit, some of the Clippers starters get their crack at the Lakers second unit.
Lakers 81, Clippers 62 with 5:52 remaining.
The two most unlikely starters, Brian Skinner and Fred Jones, are the ones who start the run. Randolph hits one out of two from the line. Fred Jones also hits one of two, but Skinner rebounds the miss and it turns into an Eric Gordon jumper that’s true. The lead is down to 15. Fred Jones draws another foul and this time hits both his free throws. The lead is 13. Bryant is now in to help stop the bleeding, but he misses a jumper that’s rebounded by Jones. Then, at the 4:18 mark, Jones nails a three. The lead is 10. Lakers 81, Clippers 71.
Phil Jackson calls a much needed timeout. Phil is usually known to let his team play through bad stretches, but he is so disgusted by his second unit that he pulls out every last one of them. Both teams now have their starting units on the floor. Out of the Lakers timeout, Bryant misses a jumper. Down on the other end, Baron nails a three off the dish from Gordon. The Clippers are now down 7, with 3:33 to play. The Lakers are in full-blown panic mode, and Bryant turns the ball over. Fred Jones, the hero of the comeback, nails another jumper. The lead is 5. On the other end, Derek Fisher tries to stop the run with a deep three, but it’s no good.
Then something strange happens. Baron misses a jumper (that’s not the strange part) and the ball ends up going out on the Lakers. So it is Clippers ball, with 2:30 left, and the team is riding the momentum of an unbelievable 14-0 run. So what does Dunleavy do? He calls timeout. When his team is on the good side of a 14-0 run. He essentially gifts Phil Jackson a badly needed timeout. I learn two things from this:
– Mike Dunleavy is prone to over-coaching at the worst possible times.
– My puppy is easily frightened by flying water bottles.
To be completely fair though, the Clippers do score out of the timeout, on a nice move and floater in the lane by Zach Randolph. 2:21 left, Lakers 81, Clippers 78.
Everyone on the planet knows that Bryant is getting the ball in this situation, and it’s Gordon’s job to slow him down. Bryant ends up drawing a foul and despite being 1 for 4 from the line, he sinks both free throws, mercifully ending what was a 16-0 Clippers run. Back on the other end Fred Jones answers yet again, and now the lead is down to 3 with 1:39 remaining. Bryant tries a contested three but misses. Gordon goes down, gets fouled and calmly makes both free throws to cut the lead to 1. Lakers 83, Clippers 82. On the ensuing Lakers possession, Pau Gasol goes right at Randolph with a great baseline move to push the lead back to 3. On the next Clippers possession, Baron dribbles idly and the Clippers have to settle for a shot clock beating heave from Zach Randolph. It misses. Ariza grabs the board and the Clippers curiously decide not to foul with 26 seconds to play. The clock finally stops when Bryant gets fouled with 10 seconds left. The Lakers crunch time experience is starting to show. Bryant steps up to the line and nails both the free throws to push the lead to 5 with ten seconds to play.
On the ensuing possession Eric Gordon, he of Sam Cassell like anatomy, sinks a three to keep hope alive. The Clippers, as is all night, simply refuse to go away. On the inbound, Fisher is immediately fouled. He misses the first free throw, but makes the second. The Lakers lead is 3 with 5 seconds left, and Dunleavy uses a timeout. It’s time for him to use the best play he’s got in that giant playbook.
Novak is in as the inbounder. This is a good move because he’s 6’10, so he has plenty of height to inbound the ball. Also, if the Lakers decide to double on the catch, Novak can step right back inbounds and have a clean look at a three.
5 seconds left. The Lakers come out and match up really well, putting Kobe on Gordon and Ariza on Baron. Fisher is covering the inbounder Novak. The ball finally goes to Baron near the corner baseline, and he is absolutely blanketed by the 6’9 Ariza. There’s a window for Baron to perhaps kick the ball back to Novak, who has an 8 inch height advantage over Fisher and would surely be able to get his shot off. Baron is hounded however and turns his back to the opportunity. Baron struggles for space and attempts to draw a foul, but Ariza’s defense is solid. Baron has to throw up a desperation double clutch three, and it’s no good. Ballgame. Lakers 88, Clippers 85.
If the play was to inbound the ball and give it right back to Novak for the three, I like it. Novak is the team’s best shooter, and he wouldn’t have a hard time getting a clean look against the much shorter Derek Fisher. This final play, like so many of the other ones tonight, just looked like poor execution. Give the Lakers their credit though; they are extremely tough to score on in end game situations. They have the luxury of having one of the best defenders in the game in Bryant, a mobile 7 footer of their choosing, and one 6’9 ultra-athletic defensive machine in Ariza.
Tonight Eric Gordon really stepped up to the plate. It was a nice bounce back game for him, even though he got off to a cold start in the first. There are shooters out there in the league who will continue to jack up contested shots even if they’re ice cold, and consequently end up killing their team. This is not of concern with Eric Gordon. If his shot isn’t falling, and it wasn’t again tonight, he’ll put it on the deck and try and draw fouls. Because he has incredible confidence in his ability to score, he’ll still take the good looks he gets. Shooters do need to have bad memories, but they also need to have mental toughness, and Gordon has that in spades. Eric ends up scoring 24 points, despite having to spend tons of energy dealing with Bryant on the defensive end. Let’s put Gordon’s performance tonight in perspective. He’s a 20 year old rookie who’s on a cold shooting streak, and yet he still outscored the best player in the league. That’s impressive.
This game tonight reminded me a lot of the original Rocky movie. Stay with me. An unlucky, severely less talented contender gets a shot at beating the champion. No one thinks the contender can win. The champion is bigger, stronger and faster. But you know what happens? The contender comes out and knocks down the Champ. He makes it a fight. He wants his respect from the Champ, from the fans, and for himself. He gets knocked down, but he gets right back up and keeps fighting, because that’s what fighters do.
And yeah, maybe the contender could have actually won if they blocked less punches with their head. You might think my Rocky analogy is pretty stupid. Or maybe, you don’t care because you think there is no such thing as a moral victory. But you know what? In my mind, the Clippers did win something tonight, even if it will never show up in the standings.
They won some respect, if only for an evening.