How’s that for the start of an 11-game road trip?
The shorthanded Clippers entered The Highlight Factory hoping for a win against the team with the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference. They wanted to set the tone for a successful trip that will lead them to Miami and then Orlando next, so you can only assume that Vinny Del Negro’s team wants to come out and play their game, which starts with defense and rebounding, to give themselves a chance to beat the 32-18 Hawks.
For the most part, they failed to do that, but yet they found themselves at the end with a real chance to win anyway. Despite giving up uncontested jump shots all night long, the Clippers continued to fight until the very end, an ending that would ultimately come in the form of a flagrant foul on Blake Griffin to send Al Horford to the line to effectively finish the game, 101-100. The Clippers (or Hawks, depending how you look at it) broke Lawler’s Law in the loss, an opportunity to beat a good team at the beginning of a daunting road trip ripped from their grasp.
The flagrant call was close – as was the one that preceded it when replay was insufficient in determining possession with 4.2 seconds left in the game –but make no mistake, it was not the referees but the Clippers themselves who lost the game, and you have to look no further than the final play to see why: Down one, the Hawks take the ball out on the sideline, in front of the Clippers bench. 6’10” Al Horford flashes to the top of the key, where he gets the ball and finds himself isolated one on one with 7’0” DeAndre Jordan. Without a hint of deception, Horford puts the ball on the floor and drives right past his defender, as if DeAndre wasn’t even there, and then powers up to finish strong against Blake coming to help from the far block. The two All-Stars meet at the rim, but the ball disappears, they crash into each other in mid air and both go down hard. Horford landed on his tailbone, but would be OK to come back and knock down the two game-winning free throws. The call was a flagrant foul on Blake, so the Clippers didn’t even get the chance for a shot with .6 seconds left. It was one of two critical calls at the end that could have gone either way, but it was also a defensive breakdown like so many other plays that led to quality looks for the Hawks throughout the game.
That they were in position to win at all is a testament to their talent and determination to find ways to compete in the face of adversity. Again without Eric Gordon, Baron Davis and Randy Foye did their best to pick up the slack. Though they had some positive contributions on offense, they struggled mightily defending the perimeter for the second game in a row, and continue to exhibit of Gordon to the team. The box score will tell you that Atlanta shot 43.6% from the floor, but that does not accurately reflect the degree to which the Clippers were unwilling or unable to defend. The Hawks often settled for jumpshots – and took 27 threes – but they were generally wide-open looks that had to be too difficult to pass up.
Mike Bibby who shoots 45% from three, missed all five of his shots from behind the arc despite the phantom defense, but other Hawks made the Clips pay. We have the obligatory mention of the player Gordon would have been guarding: Joe Johnson, who was everywhere, with 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. We have the customary Jamal Crawford scoring explosion: Coming off of three games in which he scored a combined 29 points, he went off for 34 against the Clips, including 16 in the third quarter on 6-6 from the floor. And we have Horford, the deserving All-Star who finished with 23 and 12 and was generally dominant. He did it with four jumpers between 19 and 20 feet and five buckets at the hoop, a mix that made things very difficult for the Clipper bigs. He had little trouble finding his offense against both the man and 2-3 zone defenses the Clippers presented, able to use his size and strength or find soft spots to knock down jumpers. Ultimately, these three extremely gifted offensive players proved too difficult for the Clippers to contain, and they weren’t able to counter with enough offensive execution to come out ahead.
Early on, the game featured two contrasting styles, the Clippers keyed by contributions off the bench and from complementary players. They countered their ineffectiveness on defense with an offensive assault on the Hawks’ painted area, scoring 36 of their first 38 points in the lane or at the free throw line. DeAndre Jordan was a big part of this, with nine points on 4-5 shooting, all at the rim, obviously, and all in the first quarter. He became less engaged in the offense as the game wore on, probably a result of poor ball movement and too many jumpers, and probably a bad sign for the Clippers. Tonight, the Clippers found a way to compensate for DeAndre’s disappearing act after a great first quarter (he also only managed three boards in 21 minutes), with yet another monster game from Ike Diogu. In 22 minutes he contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds and, like DeAndre, did most of his damage in one very impressive burst. Almost as if they passed a baton after the first quarter, Diogu came out with tremendous energy on the glass and picked up 12 points on five hard-fought buckets in the lane. It may not exactly work this way, but the Clippers have basically found a platoon of DeAndre and Diogu that they can count on for efficient production alongside Blake.
Throughout the night, the Hawks were successful in bothering Blake – and with options like Josh Smith and Horford to throw at him, it makes sense. They were mostly able to keep him from getting good position in the post and physical with him when touched the ball, without having to double-team all the time. He finished with 19 points on 18 shots, so the Hawks have to feel good about the job they did. The offensive performance as a whole was frustrating, the team appeared to have very little going on when they couldn’t work through Blake. They depended on Baron to create, and despite his strong numbers on the game, that led to too many long jumpers, which led to fast break opportunities. Without Gordon to provide the counter to his inside presence, Atlanta allowed Baron, Foye and Gomes to hoist long jumpers, and ended up surviving that way.
And hoist they did, to mixed results. Foye had eight points, including two of four from downtown, but it was his backcourt mate who, again, proved to be the most fascinating to watch. In a game like this, on the road against a really good team, the Clippers need Baron to play a certain way if they want to win. The primary indicator is shot selection, which is directly dependent on his ability to use his dribble constructively. We all know what that way looks like, and on many nights, like tonight, he manages to play almost to completely opposite games in one. One moment he is taking advantage of his mismatch against Bibby, using little more than a hesitation dribble to blow by him for a layup. The next, he will dribble around the perimeter for 22 seconds before launching a three-pointer from two feet behind the arc. It’s uncanny just how inconsistent his approach can be, and it was on full display tonight. The final line does not lie when it says 22 points and 13 assists, but it also can’t possibly reflect the incredibly bi-polar nature of his performance. Before he decided to attack Bibby with the dribble, he spent most of the game dominating the ball and settling for long jumpers while the offense stood stagnant. You have to wonder if he feels the pressure the assert himself more as a scorer with Gordon out, but even if so, he must realize that he scores much more efficiently when he gets into the lane. Two for seven from three – especially a 2-7 like he had tonight, is just not a number you want to see from Baron, regardless of Gordon being out. When he probed, he found success with his own offense, as well as opportunities for others if their defenders dared help off of them. Similarly, he was disruptive on defense (four steals) when he played with energy and got into passing lanes, but spent most of the game staying under screens and content to switch and subject his team to mismatches rather than fight through. His decision-making was not sharp enough on this night, and that’s all it takes for this bunch to lose a game that they could have won.
Considering the circumstances, with the next two opponents being who they are, you have to think this one hurts more than most losses. It would seem reasonable to look at the game and be impressed that the Clippers managed to make it as close as they did, despite a bad defensive effort and, of course, the injuries. But this is The Road Trip, and the first win figures to be pretty damn important for this young team that has already endured a 1-13 start and everything else that goes along with being the Clippers. We’ll see how they respond on Super Bowl Sunday, in Miami.