With the Clippers down 12 early in the fourth quarter, DeAndre Jordan scored 8 points on 4 for 4 from the free throw line, a put back layup and a dunk as part of a Clippers 10-2 run to cut the lead to 4. Scotty Brooks called a time out and the Clippers looked like, suddenly, they were going to accomplish a rare feat: coming back from double digit deficit on the road to beat not just a playoff team but a top team in the conference.
Even when the Clippers completely fumbled, they came back. They endured a stretch where even though the small ball lineup forced a turnover on Durant, with Craig Smith coming up with the steal, Smith couldn’t make the layup at the other end, sparking a mini collapse for the Clippers. Westbrook found Collison for an easy layup, Gordon was called for a charge, Kaman missed a free throw, Blake touch-fouled Ibaka who made both free throws and Eric Gordon had one of the laziest passes that Westbrook easily swiped and the Clippers all while ignoring Blake Griffin who, up until the fourth quarter, had been on fire (30 points and 10 rebounds through three quarters). The Clippers were now down 9 with less than 6 minutes left, and yet, they still came back.
Even with Kaman missing another three free throws, the Clippers cut a the lead down to 2 points and it could have been even less had Blake made both of his free throws or slammed the ball when Ibaka fouled him. Both Mo and Eric made tough threes down the stretch and even showed some promise (and some more screw ups) by VDN.
The Clippers had two beautifully functional inbounds plays down the stretch that completely fooled the Thunder. The first earned Blake the free throws that he would eventually make 1 for 2. Eric Gordon inbounded the ball to Blake, with the impression that there would be a hand off back to Eric and he would have a three at the top of the key, except that Blake faked the hand off, letting both the defenders sag over to Eric and completely opened up the lane.
Some might be upset that Blake didn’t try to use the contact and go for a smarter bucket and the foul, but I have a hard time blaming a player for going hard to the rim. And he was so close to pulling it off. There is no guarantee that had Blake gone for the layup that he might have made it, after all, he was swiped across the face.
The second inbounds play went to Blake who, instead of taking it himself (like the last play) or looking for one of the Clippers three guards (Mo, Eric and Randy) on the wing, he found a streaking Craig Smith for an easy layup. Neither play was fancy, just used clever misdirection and simple passes with Blake at the fulcrum of the play. Blake needs to be the fulcrum of the offense because not only is he one of the best scorers, but he is the best passer and makes the best decisions on the team.
But the Clippers weren’t even one sided down the stretch, Vinny came up with some great defense on the inbounds plays for the Thunder. The Clippers completely swarmed Kevin Durant by switching Blake onto Durant and doubling off every screen for every possession, almost forcing the Thunder into two turnovers by knocking the ball out of bounds and then forcing the inbounder to call a timeout, thus wasting the Thunder’s last time out. Even when Durant did finally get the ball, it wasn’t for lack of planning, because the Clips fought through every screen on those repeated inbounds plays.
What was the most disheartening coaching sequence, was the inbounds after Craig Smith’s layup (the great inbounds play). Both Randy Foye and Craig Smith pressured the inbounds pass, only that left Thabo Sefalosha completely open to take the pass and then, because no Clipper surrounded him, he easily passed it up to the cherry picking Russell Westbrook who jammed the ball home, ending the game.
As good as those offensive plays were, the failed trapping was just as bad, if not worse because of the ease at which the Thunder broke the press. While the side-inbounds play was aggressively defended, the Thunder just simply finished the Clippers off without much of a fight on the play.
On the whole, the effort was way more than encouraging, and even the execution was impressive. The Clippers walked into OKC and expected to win. And while losing to the Thunder now doesn’t have any serious effects, this year is pretty much just a training exercise, there will be a time when these efforts will no longer be considered encouraging but wasted.
Lots of highlights and then Notes:
- Blake Griffin, from whatever measure you want to use, actua play, highlights, box score, or cheers was the absolute center of attention. He scored 35 points on 15 for 20 (!) shooting, yanked down 11 rebounds and notched 6 assists with an enormous block in the fourth quarter (when he looked like he tweaked an ankle but kept playing). He was just everywhere. And to top it off, that was his 61st double double of the year, the most by a rookie since the NBA/ABA merger. More than David Robinson, more than Hakeem, more than Tim Duncan or KG or, even, Shaquille O’Neal. Huge accomplishment.
- VDN went with the three guard lineup down the stretch again to mixed results. Randy Foye played the third guard despite not making a single shot until the fourth quarter (1 for 6 for the game), however, magically, he played great defense on Kevin Durant (29 points on 9 for 23 shooting). He was part of the three guard squad that kept Durant from making a field goal at the end of the second quarter (KD went 0 for 4 in the second), and when KD came back in the fourth, he forced KD into 2 for 6 shooting, 3 for 4 from the line and a potentially costly turnover. I still don’t know how that defense works, but it does. If Foye would have been as effective on the offensive end, the Clippers probably would have pulled out a win.
- More weirdness that is Randy Foye. When he came in the second quarter, before Durant returned to play, the Thunder went on a viciously quick 15-4 run and swung the game around. So he can guard the toughest scorer, who has a 6 inches on him and a high shot and yet he can’t guard James Harden or Daequan Cook? I don’t understand Randy Foye.
- Despite Kaman’s poor free throw line performance, I thought the center platoon did very well. Kaman shot 5 for 12, pretty normal for him, but he was as active as he has ever been on defense. Those six blocks he had tonight didn’t come cheap. And yet DeAndre popped into the second unit and played perfectly in his 10 minutes, scoring 10 points on 3 for 3 shooting from the field and a miraculous 4 for 4 from the line while grabbing 8 rebounds and blocking a shot. Let’s revisit, that was all in ten minutes of play. Loved the energy from DeAndre and he probably would have earned more minutes if the Clippers didn’t need Kaman’s floor spacing to prevent Perk from helping out Ibaka to double team Blake.
- Small forward continues to be an issue. Jamario had some nice stops on Durant (he even forced Durant into shooting one off the side of the backboard) but those moments were fleeting as Durant proceeded to catch fire. Aminu played uninspired and I’m worried about VDN being able to reach Aminu. Not only has there not been much development in his game, but Aminu doesn’t seem to be having the same fun he did earlier in the season. Randy Foye isn’t a long term solution at SF.
- Mo Williams struggled defensively, but he ran the offense really well. He sublimated his game to improve Blake’s hot start (some really good alley-oops to Blake) and when he did take shots he made them at a high percentage, even having a huge three at the end of the game. He’s made some big shots in his tenure with the Clippers and I think he’ll be of help through next year, unless Eric Bledsoe makes a gigantic leap forward.
- Speaking of Bledsoe, he looks good at times and bad at others. The most concise example of both was when he flew in for an offensive rebound in the dying moments of the third quarter, and then, with a couple of seconds left, launched up an airball. Had he been just slightly more aware and patient, he could have put up a much better shot.