Here are five thoughts from the Clippers 105-97 loss to Portland on Tuesday night:
- This felt like a playoff game. You can credit the always excellent Rose Garden crowd for part of that feeling, but the play on the court was elevated to a level we haven’t seen from both sides this year. The see-saw nature of things when the teams were trading jumpers in the third quarter, the hostility towards the referees from both sides, the battle for loose balls…every possession had an air of importance as if one play could completely swing the game. Ultimately, thanks to some good defense and a few crafty plays by Chauncey Billups down the stretch, things did boil down to one possession — or so we thought.
- Here’s the situation: Portland ball. Clippers are down 3 — a one possession game. There are 25.9 seconds on the game clock, a full 24 on the shot clock. Portland is inbounding from halfcourt. The Clippers only have one timeout left. What do you do? If you’re not exactly sure, take solace in the fact that Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers weren’t either. Blake Griffin elected to foul an 84 percent career free throw shooter in Wes Matthews (the best on the court for Portland) four seconds into the clock with a generous chest bump on a trap at center court. There seemed to be some mixed emotions from the Clippers bench when the foul happened — did they want to foul or not? After the game, Del Negro said that he was weary of Portland “dribbling out the clock,” collecting an offensive rebound and winning the game. The strategy of extending the game is a little questionable in that scenario, but the execution of that strategy by Del Negro’s guys coming out of a timeout is embarrassing. You simply have to force more than one pass, or at the very least get the ball out of the best foul shooter’s hands. The Clippers did neither. Matthews hit both his free throws, giving the Blazers a five point lead. And then, instead of immediately attacking off the made free throw in an effort to get a quick two, Del Negro burned his last timeout to draw up a post feed for Blake Griffin. Once the predictable off-the-ball action freed no one up, Blake turned to get the two…and got stripped. Game over.
- Let’s move on from the Clippers choosing to overcome a five point deficit with 20 seconds left instead of electing to play it out and secure a simple defensive rebound. Ultimately that’s one possession — a mighty important one — but still only one possession. A better question is this: What is Del Negro doing benching Chris Paul for the last seven minutes of the first half when he had three fouls? Here’s a fun stat. Want to know how many times Chris Paul has fouled out over the course of his 431-game career? Three times. Two of those games went to overtime. That’s right — Paul has fouled out once in regulation in his entire career. But instead of trusting one of the smartest players in basketball and one of the league’s biggest stars (you think the refs want to foul out Chris Paul?) to play through three fouls, Del Negro sits him for a total of 11 minutes in the second quarter. Luckily for the Clippers they had someone to temporarily save the day…
- Just look at what Mo Williams is working with. Against a team with depth like Portland (seriously: Nic Batum played 16 minutes tonight), his mismatched unit of Foye-Gomes-Evans-Cook should get absolutely ran off the floor. But yet again, Williams took control with his playmaking and shooting and carried his group. Del Negro’s line shifts are interesting, but it’s not a bad idea to let the starting unit play exclusively with each other to speed up the jelling process. Eventually, it will become too much to ask Williams (6-for-10, 14 points, 4 assists) to do this every night, but for now, he’s been huge at keeping the Clippers from getting blown out at the start of the second and fourth quarters.
Handling your stars
- Watching Gerald Wallace play basketball is one of the more exciting forms of entertainment available to man. Tonight he was everywhere. He battled with Blake, he made the extra pass, and he knocked down a bunch of shots to set the tone for what ended up being a very jumper-happy display put on by both teams. Here’s the thing about Nate McMillan — he lets his guys be who they are (I know, Rudy Fernandez, just stay out of this.) Instead of forcing them to crawl at Andre Miller’s old preferred pace, the Blazers get up and down the court now because that’s where Raymond Felton excels. Kevin Arnovitz explained why Portland and Wallace are perfect for each other, and a lot of that has to do with McMillan just letting Wallace be Crash. Wallace eventually fouled out of this game, but he was the key cog in the Blazers’ victory. Paul did not foul out, but his fingerprints on this game (11 points, 3 assists) are nowhere to be found. Is that all on Del Negro? No. But at some point Del Negro needed to realize that Chris Paul does not need a shepherd. He is a wolf, not a sheep. But if you’re going to act like the shepherd? At least make sure everyone follows your plan in the game’s most critical possession.