The Clippers dropped their final clash of the season with the Lakers 112-104 in an entertaining but sloppy game last night at the Staples Center. Watching the game, it was hard to figure out how the Clippers kept it as close as they did. Leading scorer Eric Gordon suffered through his worst shooting night of the season, missing his first 11 shots without managing to earn a single trip to the line. By the time he finally made three shots in the final minutes, the game was pretty much decided.
If it wasn’t for Mo Williams, the game wouldn’t have been close at all. The Clippers started the second half down 9, and managed to achieve a rare 3rd quarter victory (32-28) thanks mostly to a 14 point quarter from Williams, including two circus threes. Williams had his best game as a Clipper tonight, scoring a team high 30 points on 11-16 shooting, including 4-7 from beyond the arc. (The more you watch Mo Williams play, the more he reveals himself as a gunner – if he’s feeling it, he won’t hesitate to call his own number. A lot of the shots he made tonight, particularly in the third quarter, ranked high on degree of difficulty. Only time will tell if Williams can sink enough step back threes and reverse lay-ups to justify such difficult attempts, but for a guy who was supposed to be a soothing antidote to the inconsistency of Baron Davis’ razzle-dazzle, Mo scores pretty high on the “Noooo, nooooo, nooooo….. YESSSSSSSSS!!!” scale himself.)
Still, despite Mo’s efforts, it was hard to figure out how the Clippers were still within a basket midway through the fourth quarter. They turned the ball over more than the Lakers, shot worse, grabbed fewer offensive rebounds, and got to the free throw line less (a whopping 39-18 discrepancy). Besides a solid effort from Blake (22 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals), the Clippers didn’t get much from remaining starters Ryan Gomes or Chris Kaman.
But as sloppy as the Clippers were, the Lakers were often sloppier. Much has been made of the Lakers hot play since the All-Star break, but their play tonight was punctuated throughout by moments of inattention or flat out goofiness. Matt Barnes let two defensive rebounds bounce off his face, and tapped in a third for a Clippers basket. Andrew Bynum threw an outlet pass so accurate that Phil Jackson didn’t have to move to catch it. And Ron Artest set the NBA record for most missed breakaway slams to start a quarter in the third, first getting rejected by the rim and then, thirty seconds later, losing control of the ball on his way up and hurling it wildly against the backboard. Often, the Lakers -particularly the starting unit – were slow to get back on transition after missed shots; the Clippers 21-12 advantage in the fast break helped keep them in the game.
Another reason the Clippers were able to keep it close was that the bench made a rare appearance, outscoring the Lakers’ bench 34-14. Randy Foye and Al-Farouq Aminu were particularly good. Foye did it in his usual way, getting hot from outside in the fourth quarter, and scoring 8 of his 12 points in quick succession on tough jumpers just inside the arc. Aminu had one of those tantalizing games that he and fellow rookie Eric Bledsoe seem to specialize in. On bad nights, it sometimes seems that Farouq has trouble getting into the flow of the game — but then on good nights his play makes you throw around crazy, made up adjectives and adverbs like “Pippin-esque” and “Dengly.”
Two plays in particular stuck out for me. On the first, Aminu grabbed a rebound, surveyed the floor, dribbled past mid-court, realized that no one was stopping him, and attacked the basket with three giant bounds, flushing the ball through the hoop before the D realized he was driving. The rare combination of rebounding instincts, ball handling, aggression, and athleticism you need to pull off this play is rare – almost Blake-like. Having two forwards who can turn rebounds into lay-ups is a scary thing. The second play was as much about Blake Griffin’s growing basketball IQ as it is about Aminu’s skills, but whatever. Midway through the fourth, Blake had the ball on the left block, guarded by Lamar Odom. Griffin shifted the ball away from the basket as if he was considering a turn around jumper, which forced Odom to come a half step out of the lane. That space created an alley for Aminu to streak down, and Blake hit him in stride, whipping the pass past Odom’s face. It would have been a masterful play no matter who was running it, but for two rookies to pull it off is extremely encouraging.
(And while we’re on specific plays, tonight’s game provided two more entries for the “Blake Griffin: Don’t Start Taking Me For Granted Yet Please” file. First, Randy Foye found Blake on an alley-oop from a good ¾ of the way down the court – a good 70 feet – possibly the season’s most impressive long range hookup. Later, Mo Williams failed to pass the ball early enough on a botched fast break and ended up trapped underneath the basket. As a last resort, he threw the ball up in the air about three feet behind a leaping Griffin. Blake – already in the air – managed to reach his right arm back over his head like Plastic Man, corral the ball a good two feet behind his neck and then somehow maintain control of the ball as he windmilled it home.)
Turnovers continue to be a problem. There were “only” 16 tonight (compared to, say, the 25 against the Wizards earlier in the week), but many came off wholly unforced errors and led to 12 momentum killing fast break points for the Lakers. I admit I didn’t know Mo Williams’ game that well before he came to the Clippers. It’s natural that Mo would be compared to Baron, and just as natural to contrast the point guards in an easy, binary way. Williams can stroke it consistently from deep; Baron couldn’t. Williams prefers to run a pick and roll; Baron was more comfortable throwing the ball inside. But as a distributor, Mo shares some of Baron’s most aggravating qualities. He often tries too hard to force tough passes through impossibly small openings, and seems to have the same over-confidence in his ability to keep his dribble alive while slaloming through defenders. Williams had 5 turnovers last night, and he has a higher TO% (% of possessions that end in a turn over) than Baron Davis, both this season and over his career. It’s worth noting, because the assumption has seemed to be that Mo Williams’ arrival would lead to a more careful brand of basketball. Instead, you’re left to wonder what the Clippers can do about the fact that their top four scorers (Kaman, Williams, Gordon, and Griffin) are all prone to giving the ball away.
If Ron Artest continues to play with the defensive intensity he brought tonight, it significantly increases the Lakers’ chances for a third consecutive title. Tonight, Artest had 3 turnovers to go along with 3 blocks (all 3, somewhat unusually, came off close-outs on the perimeter), 15 points, and a game high +/- +21. The last turn over Artest forced was the game clincher. Down 5 with under 4 minutes to play in the game, the Clippers had a fast break opportunity off a DeAndre Jordan blocked shot. Blake took one dribble in the paint and attempted to rise past Artest, who somehow managed to artfully poke the ball out of Blake’s hands before he could elevate. Blake wanted a call but didn’t deserve one, and that was basically that.
And in the end, the Clippers just couldn’t get a stop when they needed one. There was Kobe being Kobe in the fourth quarter again, scoring 12 of his game high 37 points, and basically driving poor Eric Gordon out of his mind. Remember how Eric Gordon and Kobe Bryant had essentially identical statistics after the first two Lakers-Clips game? Not tonight. In addition to his offensive woes, Eric Gordon was manhandled by Kobe, who not only made his usual handful of late-MJ-style midrange jumpers but also got to the charity stripe an amazing 17 times. (I know this is typical Laker-hater bile, but… seriously, does any player get the “respect” from refs that Kobe does? Randy Foye fouled out of the game guarding him for less than 15 minutes – and on replay it looked like Foye didn’t even touch Kobe on two of the fouls.)
The downside to the Clippers (finally) playing at full strength is that it’s a lot harder to make excuses. With either Kaman or EJ on the bench for the majority of the season, Clipper fans have been quick to blame many of the season’s losses on a lack of firepower due to injury. Of course, the Clippers are stronger with their stars on the court, but games like this are reminders of the Clips’ struggles early in the season, when the question wasn’t firepower, but finding a balanced scheme to maximize the talent. There have been times since EJs return – most obviously against the Wizards – when he has been visibly frustrated by his lack of touches. Assuming the team doesn’t trade Kaman over the summer, the Clippers are going to enter next season with at least four players who probably consider themselves primary or (at the least) secondary scorers. Figuring out how to make that work should be the focus of Vinny and his team over the final 10 games.