Yuck. What a dispiriting loss. The Cavs broke their NBA-record 26 game losing streak with a 126-119 victory over the Clippers tonight in Cleveland. For Clipper fans it wasn’t just a sloppy and frustrating game – although, of course it was that – but a reminder that this young team, despite its progress this season, still has a long way to go to become consistent winners.
Just don’t say it was a “trap game.” That was the phrase I heard all week leading up to the Cavs game. “It’s the ultimate trap game – don’t take it lightly.” Really? A trap game is the game you overlook, last month’s game in Golden State, say, sandwiched between the Heat and Lakers games. Hence the “trap,” – a hole in the ground carefully obscured by sticks and brush so that you don’t notice it until, you know, you fall into it. There was nothing off the radar about tonight’s challenge. It wasn’t a listless game played in front of empty seats. Not only was the Cavs losing streak national news, not only had Coach Byron Scott publicly challenged his team’s “pride and commitment” after their loss to the Pistons on Wednesday, but tonight’s potential 27th loss in a row would have set the all time record for a losing in streak in any of the four major sports. National media descended upon a nearly sold out Quicken Loans Arena.
So if the Clippers didn’t overlook the Cavs, why did they lose? Well, for a few reasons. One is that Mo Williams returned from the hip injury that has kept him out the past three weeks, meaning this wasn’t really the Cavs team that lost 26 in a row. Before the game, Coach Scott discussed limiting Williams’ minutes to ease him back from injury. (The Bucks held Brandon Jennings to 19 minutes in his first game back from injury, gift-wrapping the game for the Clippers, who had no answer for Jenning’s speed.) But, I imagine, when you’re trying to avoid the all-time record for losses by a pro American team, you can’t be quite so stringent. After sparking the Cavs with 9 first half assists off the bench, Scott played Williams most of the second half and all of overtime, and he was brilliant. He dished out a season-high 14 assists, and his 17 points included an off balance jumper to tie the game at the end of regulation.
But even with with Mo Williams playing at a high level, there was really no excuse for the shoddiness of the Clippers defense. The Cavs are last in the league in offensive efficiency, second to last in points scored, and 29th in field goal percentage, shooting under 43% for the season heading into the game. The Cavs scored 50% from the field tonight, and scored 110 points in regulation, including 52 in paint, an astonishing number for a team without a true post presence. If you were just perusing box scores, J.J. Hickson would look like one of the game’s monster performers – and statistically he was, with 27 points to go along with 14 rebounds – but at least half of his points came on undefended dunks and layups. The Cavs smaller, quicker point guards victimized the Clipper perimeter D all night, streaking down the lane to the basket at will, blowing by Bledsoe and Foye, and dishing gimmes to Hickson once Blake or DeAndre stepped up to stop the drive. And I’m not only talking about Mo Williams. The Clippers’ ole defense made Daniel Gibson and Ramon Sessions look like elite point guards.
On offense, the Clippers looked pretty good – except when they really needed a basket. Baron played another excellent game, with 26 points, 7 assists and zero turnovers. This is the best his stroke has looked in his time as a Clipper, more compact and with a quicker release. He hit another 2 three-pointers tonight, and has made 26 of his last 29 free throws, a solid indicator of his shot’s consistency.
Randy Foye added 23 points, and Eric Bledsoe made his second consecutive strong effort off the bench, scoring 13 points to go along with 4 assists and 3 offensive rebounds. (Bledsoe’s rebounding continues to be his most tantalizing asset. His nose for the ball, particularly on the offensive glass, could make him one of the league’s elite rebounding guards. Check out his per/36 numbers, which compare pretty favorably to Rajon Rondo in his first two years in the league.)
Blake was more spectacular than solid. Yes, his numbers were there. He scored 32 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but basically, he played exactly how you would have wanted him to if you were a Cavs fan watching Blake for the first time. That is to say, he spent the first half doing things no one else in the league can do. He threw down a few monster slams. He sank a three pointer with the shot clock expiring. And he and Baron hooked up for the prettiest play of the game, a half-court alley-oop off of an inbounds pass with under a second remaining in the first half.
But with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime, Blake came up short. He was 3-10 with 3 turnovers in the final 17 minutes of play. It was frustrating to watch, because the Clippers kept giving the ball to Blake on isolation plays, and, frankly, Blake still hasn’t shown a consistent ability to score on isos. The few back to the basket post moves he has, Blake likes to run fast, grabbing the ball with a little space and making his move before his defender can body him. Tonight, Blake was asked to score from the post on plays where everyone in the gym knew Blake was being asked to score from the post, but without any element of surprise Blake struggled to find high percentage looks. One day soon he will be that guy – but for now (at least as long as Eric Gordon remains sidelined) Vinny would be better keeping the ball in Baron’s hands and letting him create shots for himself and the other perimeter guys.
But of course, those are only game notes, a mere list of on-court failings. This loss also hurts in another way, unique for the Clippers. Pipe dreams of a miracle playoff run aside, the real goal of this season has been reinvention. New coach, new stars, new expectations, new team. As I’ve written before in this space, “It’s the Clippers” has been shorthand for embarrassment and incompetence for thirty years. When the national media brings up the Clippers, it’s usually as a punch-line. That’s not something you change overnight, his team has chopped away at respectability all season, first with Blake and EJ’s emergence as superstars in the season’s first months, and then through a series of impressive wins over the Bulls, Heat, Lakers, and Knicks. Slowly, it seemed, a new consensus was beginning to form about the Clippers. You began to hear grudging admissions of the team’s talent, how hard Vinny has them playing, how bright their future is.
No team wanted to be the one that ultimately lost to Cleveland. But for the Clippers it’s particularly galling because it fits so neatly into the preconceived narrative general NBA fans have about the Clippers. This was another chance to shovel some more dirt on “It’s the Clippers” meme. But unfortunately – for one night at least – “it” still is.