When I think of progress, I imagine a steady, linear ascent. I think of the cartoon lines on the graphs with the black arrows steadily drawing upwards. I imagine always learning and literally getting better every day. But that’s not how it works in real life. There are times when things click, when the progress becomes evident and there is tangible, visible growth. And yet, there are times like the Clipper game tonight, when it looks like nothing has been learned or gained.
Flash back to November and what were the problems with the Clippers? Inability to contain opposing small forwards, terrible third quarter scoring, absence of Eric Gordon’s three point shot, and giving up high percentage of opponents 3 point field goals. Of all those, the Clippers only managed to defend the three point line well, holding the Jazz to 5 for 15 shooting from deep. Other than that, the Clips saw the floundering Gordon Hayward surface, find his stroke and score 17 points on 6 for 12 shooting. The Clips took a 57-51 halftime lead and gave it up in 2 minutes and 9 seconds on four points from Al Jefferson and two from Paul Millsap. And from 9:14 in the third on, the Clippers trailed. What about Eric Gordon’s three point stroke? A woeful 1 for 7, on top of going 7 for 20 overall and 4 for 13 in the second half.
It was a failed test. In their 6 game hot streak, the Clippers showed the ability to win, even if 5 of those teams had losing records. Sure, the win on the road against Chicago was important, but there was definitely a sensation of getting away with one. How easily could the Derrick Rose of the Bulls have made that last free throw and sent the game into overtime, and then beat the Clippers? Other than the Bulls, the Clips have faced Detroit, Minnesota, Houston, Phoenix and Sacramento. At the time of matchups, all were under .500, even if Houston was “statistically” better and trending upwards (they lost that game anyways). Other than the Minnesota game, the Clips didn’t look dominant in any of them, and they showed a willingness to let other teams hang around and get back into the game. But with Utah, there was the opportunity to measure progress against a good team and the best they could do was muster a few good individual performances against a disastrous. It’s too early to go into doom and gloom talk, Blake set a record for consecutive double doubles and Aminu looked as good as he has all season, but the Clippers still have a ways to go.
DeAndre and Blake allowed for Al Jefferson to go off tonight. Prior to tonight, Jefferson had played more like a high quality role players than the 20-10 guy he was with Minnesota. But tonight, he crushed the Clippers, scoring 31 points and grabbing 10 rebounds en route to a Jazz victory. Jefferson’s play seemed emblematic of the Jazz as a whole, after a rough start, he roared back in the second half, scored 10 points in the third and 9 in the fourth. Most of his shots were of his normal right handed post move variety, inside the free throw line but not in the “around the rim” distance. And the Clippers? They didn’t have any answer in the second half beyond Blake, whom they largely ignored for swathes of time in the third and fourth quarter.
Although for a moment, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, I thought the Clippers had a chance. Eric Gordon made a layup and Bledsoe sank a three to get the Clippers within 4. The momentum had changed, the fans, quiet after a depressing third quarter, were almost boisterous. But then the Clips allowed for the accumulation of crushing little mistakes. After the Clippers almost forced a turnover, then Okur rushed into a bad shot, Ronnie Price snagged a rebound and laid the ball in easily amongst Blake, Aminu and Diogu. None of the Clippers even jumped. Then on the following defensive possession, Blake tracked down Price on the fast break and swatted his layup attempt, only to have Gordon Hayward simply rebound the ball for a layup.
From there, the Jazz maintained the momentum and closed out the game. The Clippers continued to fight, Blake even knocked down another 3 pointer, a curious development that I’m not completely sure I’m excited about, but the Clippers just didn’t have enough to beat the Jazz.
The Clippers will take a few days off and play on Sunday against the Hawks, and maybe that’s where they’ll resume the progression.