Up one with 3 minutes left to play in the third, Randy Foye stepped into Eric Gordon’s place and drove hard to the rim to score a contested layup. On the ensuing defensive possession, Bledsoe blocked Kyle Lowry and the Clippers regained control of the ball. Randy Foye still with the spirit of Eric Gordon went right back to the rim for a bucket. Another Bledsoe defensive stop, he picked off Brooks’ pass and ran the floor to set up Aminu for the foul shots. Clippers up 6. Could the Clippers actually do this? Could they put in a strong third quarter and win on the road, sans Eric Gordon?
The answer was a resounding, depressing ‘no.’
It wasn’t like the Clippers were playing a great game before the fourth quarter, I thought they handled Kevin Martin well, but Blake struggled the entire game. Some will blame the absence of Eric Gordon, some might blame the the elbow injury and maybe they are right, but the offense of Luis Scola and the defense of Chuck Hayes took its toll on Blake. Good thing there isn’t a Chuis Hola, because Blake really would have had fits. Scola routinely got very good, almost uncontested shots close to the basket and the Clippers rarely switched DeAndre off Hayes and onto Scola to help out Blake (Porbably to keep DJ close to the rim). I know Mike Smith said that this was the only time a smaller player played good defense on Blake, but both Ron Artest and Grant Hill played outstanding on defense by using quick hands and superior positioning, just like Hayes tonight. Even without that, though the Clippers were in it.
Randy Foye played admirably, shooting well through those first three quarters and DeAndre Jordan was imposing in his return home. DJ had 9 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in the first three quarters and provided a strong enough interior defense where the Rockets didn’t challenge the inside as much as they could with the likes of Brooks, Martin and Lowry.
The Clips weren’t even turning the ball over, only fourteen the entire game. And yet, none of the positives stopped them from completely dissembling in the fourth quarter. The Clippers scored 10 points in the fourth, their worst this season, but that didn’t even encapsulate how terrible the Clippers played. They didn’t score their first point of the quarter until 5:43 off a Baron Davis banked in a shot off the right block. The Clippers didn’t score again until 3:05 off a short Blake jumper. They had only 4 points in the first 9:54 of the fourth quarter, missed 18 of their first 19 shots in the fourth and looked completely and utterly defeated. Not like they knew they were going to lose, that was pretty much a certainty, but that happens on the road. It was like they fully understood, for the first time this season, that they weren’t going to make the playoffs.
I know the majority of us realized the playoffs weren’t going to happen as soon as the Clippers stumbled to a 1-13 start, maybe we held out hope with the incredible surge from that home heavy December and January, but the beauty of these Clippers was–yes, past tense–that they believed that they could overcome all of their mistakes and still make it. VDN deserves to be lauded for the motivation of the team and their development, even though he’s often lampooned as the paragon of coaching ineptness. He’s not. Simplistic? Maybe, but the improvement of the team speaks to his abilities.
And yet, now the Clippers finally realize that they won’t make the playoffs this season. Sure, they’ll give the cliched answers about giving it 100 percent until the last second, but they are only human, and there is a level of emotional reaction to Sisyphean reality. Instead of real drive, I expect dutiful resignation and then the continued development of the team. Truth be told, I didn’t think that this year was the Clippers year even before the season started but they would show enough to make people believe. Haven’t they done that? Don’t you believe that next year will be, not could be, better? There still will be a ton of exciting basketball this year, maybe wins over Boston or Orlando to put in the trophy case, but it’s about the future now. Get better, continue to improve habits and focus on trades and transactions that will make the team the best in the future.
Some notes on the night:
• Aminu continues to improve. He made mistakes last night, but tonight there was reason to believe he’ll continue to make that two step forward, one step back progress. In 18 minutes, he scored 5 points on 1 for 1 shooting, 3 for 4 from the line, pulled down 5 rebounds, served out 2 assists and stole the ball once with only two turnovers. His improvement was on display at the end of the first quarter when he led the fast break, avoided both the charge and taking a bad shot, and then dumped the ball off to Diogu for an easy dunk. It’s not going to come overnight, but he’s getting better.
• The second unit. The best stretch of basketball occurred with the second unit on the floor tonight. In the second quarter the Clippers had a lineup of Bledsoe, Aminu, Rasual, Diogu and Cook, and they went on a run. Down 26-31, the unit played selfless ball and brought the team back up to a 44-42 lead before the starters came back in the game (who extended the lead and then lost it). It wasn’t a miraculous stretch by any means, but it instilled enough confidence that the Clippers bench will be able to compete and help the team.