If you follow politics, you may recall some confusion back in January concerning the results of the Iowa Republican primary caucuses. Although Mitt Romney was initially declared the winner, a later tally, after the votes were certified and recounted, showed Rick Santorum ahead by 19 votes. The 24-cable news channels reacted with their usual mix of even-headed reserve and dedication to context. “If I were Rick Santorum, I would be yelling and screaming about this,” said CNN’s Paul Steinhauser. “I would be talking about this non-stop.” In other words – Get really, really upset Rick! You got screwed!
But was Santorum’s belatedly-discovered win actually such a big story? A story at all? Well, it depends. If the Iowa caucuses were simply a contest in a void, then yes – we thought one guy won the competition when, in fact, another had. But if, instead, we use the caucuses as a measure of how a group of Iowa votes felt in January about their candidates, a gauge of where the election was and where it’s going, well in that case Santorum’s “miraculous reversal of fortune” (Fox News’ words) is almost meaningless. A quarter of Iowans, give or take, like Mitt Romney. Another quarter, give or take, prefer Rick Santorum. Everything else is margin of error.
The Clippers lost tonight on basketball’s equivalent of the Iowa primaries. With five seconds left, the game looked won – was won, effectively. The Clippers had the ball and the lead. In order to clinch the victory, the Clippers needed only for Chris Paul NOT to fumble the ball directly to Gary Neal who, in turn, needed only NOT to drain a game-tying three. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. A hungover OT later, the Clippers were losers.
Basketball games, obviously, are contests held in a void. The parameters of sport are what makes it such great escape: every game has a winner, a loser, hero and goat, fresh opportunities to analyze late game situations and determine who’s clutch and who chokes. But as much as this one stings, you know what your takeaway should be, as the diehard Clip-lover that you surely are? Nothing. Oh, in-game observations, certainly. The Clips struggles to keep quicker guards out of the lane continues. Randy Foye quieting the call for a new shooting guard with his season’s crispest performance. Blake did a better job than he did in San Antonio of utilizing his strength advantage against Bonner and Duncan. But I refuse to pretend that anything at the end of the game says anything about this team’s championship hopes. Or their ability to execute in the clutch. Or close out tough teams. I won’t do it – because it’s just not true.
Forgive me as I stretch my opening metaphor even further. There are candidates for whom early primary results are existential matters. The fringe hopefuls, the underfunded and the underexposed, the aspirant dark horse, the guy (or gal) who knows early failure is tantamount to campaign death. The sports equivalent? Teams “playing to prove something.” Teams struggling to make the playoffs, or save a coach’s job, or a team like the Knicks, who’s discovering both an identity and unexpected capacity on a quarter-by-quarter basis.
Guess what? The Clippers are no longer one of those teams. The Clippers are Mitt Romney – the outcome of any individual contest barely affects the long term outlook (although here the metaphor breaks down – the Spurs (in fact, all guaranteed playoff teams) are ALSO Romney, not Santorum). Although the revamped Chris-Paul led Clippers have less than a half-season together, you would be hard pressed to deny that they have achieved Quality Critical Mass. The Clips have closed games against the Lakers, the Mavs, the Heat, in Portland, Utah, Orlando, and Philadelphia. Sure, some of the yappiest national talking heads will continue to doubt that the Clippers are “for real,” citing everything from their “lack of playoff experience,” to Donald Sterling’s destructive boogeyman powers.
But those of us who watch this team every night have a luxury those national reporters don’t have – we know. We know how good these guys are. We know that Chris Paul has been better than advertised, a man who elevates unspectacular execution of half-court offense into a super power. We’ve seen Blake and DeAndre begin to cohere defensively, and we’ve seen the sharp-elbowed grind that Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin have brought to the second unit. We’ve seen an explosive offense that can erase a 10 point deficit in seconds. And we’ve watched (seemingly every other game) Chris Paul pounding his chest as he skips back to the huddle after a huge shot and a time-out, yelling “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Put it another way – If the Spurs lost today, what’s the takeaway? They gave up a 12 point third-quarter lead – are they lackadaisical coasters who lack intensity? They fumbled the ball away twice in the final minute of regulation – are they butterfingered chokers? Of course not. They’re the Duncan-Ginobli-Parker Spurs. And everyone knows they’ll be fine. What we saw at Staples Center today was two of the NBA’s elite teams play to a tie that had to have a winner. Plenty of people will hand-wring and opine. And that’s fine. Ascribing meaning to victory is a natural instinct, and it definitely makes for better radio and TV. But one game no longer says much about the Clippers going forward – and that’s worth enjoying.