The Clippers eked out a victory over the Grizzles in Memphis tonight, 82-81, in a game that was in turns sloppy, bewildering, and – briefly – thrilling at the very end. It was the occasionally good, the often bad, and the mostly ugly, but in the end the Clippers somehow managed to end up on the right side of another strange game in Memphis.
Frankly, it was amazing that the Clippers were even close in the game. Besides the thrilling second half of last week’s victory over the Thunder, the Clippers have played generally uninspired basketball over the past month. During this season’s horrific 1-13 start, this squad built a reputation for playing like they had something to prove every night, competing in games they had no business being in. Maybe it’s impossible to sustain that kind of energy when you’re playing out the string in April, but it’s troubling how disengaged the Clippers looked for three plus quarters tonight.
Turnovers, for instance, have been a constant bugaboo all season, but many of the 20 turnovers the Clippers committed were particularly egregious, and seemingly the result of carelessness as much as sloppiness. Guys threw the ball away on the break, attempting needlessly complicated passes. No one on the floor seemed to be talking to each other – a fact that made it easy for Memphis to pick Blake’s pocket from behind twice. The Clips were slow to the ball on the defensive glass, and soft boxing out, and Memphis’ shorter front court guys, Shane Battier and Zach Randolph, took advantage on put backs and tip ins. Chris Kaman, despite being the only Clipper who could shoot for most of the night, twice chose to forgo shots from the baseline in favor of wild cross court passes, which Mike Conley picked off easily and took in for uncontested layups the other way. In half court sets, the offense was almost completely motionless. Guys would run one cut max and then settle around the perimeter waiting for the ball. Shooters like Gordon and Foye would run to the top of the key demanding the ball and then wander off again without setting screens.
But no matter how poorly the Clippers were playing, the Grizzlies’ lead hovered between 6 and 10 points, due mainly to their terrible shooting. I was actually surprised, looking at the box score after the game, that Grizzlies managed to shoot even a paltry 39%… watching the game it seemed much worse. Pretty much all of their shooters besides Mike Conley were cold. ZBo was 6-15. Tony Allen was 4-13. OJ Mayo and Darrell Arthur were a combined 1-16 off the bench. It seemed like there were any number of times in the third quarter that the Grizzlies were a dagger away from putting the Clippers away, but they went 1-9 from 3 on mostly open looks.
Besides Chris Kaman – 5-6 from the field in the first half – no one on the Clippers played particularly well in the first half, but Eric Gordon seemed to be having a particularly tough go. His numbers don’t scream terrible game. He scored 11 points on 5-13 from the field, a mediocre night, not an awful one. E.J. has looked uncomfortable since returning the second time from his wrist injury a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s adjusting to sharing the back-court with another shooter, or maybe the wrist injury is still bothering his touch, but the Eric Gordon of the past few weeks hasn’t been the Eric Gordon we watched dominate over the season’s first three months, and his mounting frustration has been evident. At times, too evident.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a steadily rising drumbeat of discontent among Clipper fans about Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon’s recent demonstrativeness – some might say downright whining – towards officials.. (And it’s not something that only Clipper fans have noticed, by the way. The Daily Thunder blog had a long paragraph indicting Blake’s post dunk stare-downs and constant ref hounding in its recap this weekend.) Tonight may have been a breaking point. On an inbounds play under the Clippers’ own basket midway through the second quarter, Gordon was stripped of the ball by Mike Conley. On the replay you can clearly see that Gordon is yelling at the ref as the play is still happening his back turned to the court as Zach Randolph is basically dunking over him. According to Ralph and Mike, Vinny has recently warned his young stars to do less yapping and more playing, but this was the kind of play that drives coaches crazy even if it isn’t part of a larger pattern. Gordon stayed in the game for the rest of the quarter and started the third, but he was pulled midway through the quarter and didn’t return, sitting out crunch time for the first time all season. (Strangely, no one on the broadcast so much as commented on this, despite the fact that the Clippers were playing a three guard lineup down the stretch that included Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe but no Eric Gordon.)
But give the Clippers credit. Maybe they were only in the game late because of Memphis’ shooting deficiencies, but they still took advantage late. In the first few minutes of the fourth quarter the Clippers cut a 13 point Memphis lead down to five on a pair of Chris Kaman jump shots and some heads up work on broken plays by Al Farouq Aminu. As The Grizzlies continued to struggle with their shooting, the Clippers inched closer. Randy Foye hit a a few of his patented heel-on-the-3-point-line 2-pointers, Jamario Moon managed to tip in a missed DeAndre Jordon free throw, and somehow – if you didn’t watch the game you can’t imagine how surprising this felt – the Clippers found themselves down a mere point with 2 minutes left to play.
Mo Williams wasn’t sharp in the first half, but he came up huge in the game’s final minutes. He hit a huge three point coming out of a time out to put the Clips up one with just under two minutes to go, and then scored on an old fashioned three point play in the transition after Blake Griffin poked the ball away from ZBo in the post. With just under 40 seconds the Clippers had a 3 point lead – their largest of the game. A Mike Conley lay-up sliced the lead to one. The Clippers had the leather and the lead (as Brian Siemen would say) with 30 seconds on the clock. Which is when the weird started.
Eric Bledsoe brought the ball upcourt with the intention, I’m sure, of nursing as much time as possible off the clock. But – as always seems to happen with these Clippers – there seems to be too much emphasis on killing time and almost none on eventually running a play. Bledsoe dribbled for the better part of twenty seconds, and then, when he finally started to attack with 5 seconds left on the shot clock, promptly dribbled the ball of Marc Gasol’s leg. Somehow managing to regain control (or something close to control), Bledsoe careened into the lane and slammed into Memphis’ Tony Allen as the shot clock buzzer sounded. Two calls were made simultaneously. Crew chief Tony Brothers called a charge on Bledsoe, while Violet Palmer, standing on the baseline, called a block on Allen. The refs met at mid-court, conferred, and decided to go to the replay table, where they remained for almost ten minutes. It seemed likely that eventually Brothers’ charge call would win out: he was the senior official, plus Bledsoe was out of control on the play (“out of control” often being basketball’s “tie goes to the runner”).
But evidently no consensus was reached. It wasn’t quite the water main breaking – the court wasn’t evacuated – but the delay seemed almost as long. After an almost ten minute delay where the refs made sure that both Palmer and Brothers made their calls before the shot clock expired, 5.7 seconds were put on the clock and a jump ball was held at center court. It was the best possible outcome for the Clippers – augmented by the fact that the Grizzlies lined up for the jump ball without a single player in the Clippers back court. When Kaman backtapped the ball to Blake Griffin there wasn’t a Grizzly within ten feet of him. He passed the ball further into the backcourt to Mo Williams, who managed to dribble out the clock without being fouled.
All in all, a strange game. There has to be some satisfaction, I suppose, that the Clippers managed to win another close game – three of their past four victories have been by 6 points or fewer, and the fourth was the double overtime game against the Wizards. Mo Williams has clearly demonstrated not only a willingness but also an ability to make big shots down the stretch, which will be invaluable next season. But the team’s recent play, even in victories, continues to raise as many questions as it answers. Although their record over the past month doesn’t indicate it, the Clippers have not played a complete basketball game since Eric Gordon’s last return from injury, and as the off-season approaches it’s fair to wonder how Vinny plans to make all of his weapons work together comfortably and productively in the future.