The Clippers come into tonight needing this game.  Even though they've won five of six, they haven't beaten a winning team since December 23, and that was Houston without McGrady and, after the first quarter, Yao.  With Chicago having beaten Dallas in the last week, ranked second in overall defense and first in forcing turnovers, the Clips face their first real gut-check since the Cleveland game. In response, the Clips turn in their best first half of the season and a workmanlike second half in which they withstand a run from a gritty, good basketball team.  They score 110 against a team that hadn't allowed 100 in ten games.  They perform and, even more important, are led by Shaun Livingston at a moment in the game when a tired Cassell seems to implode.

It's always dangerous to proclaim a performance like Shaun's as a "breakout game."  I mean, how many times have we talked about Shaun's turning a corner?  But something about tonight feels different because Shaun truly takes over the game when the Clippers desperately need a playmaker.  Let's take a look at the final 3:33 -- in which the Bulls are essentially held scoreless[1] --  focusing primarily on Shaun's effort.  In between a couple of Elton Brand free throws, Sam Cassell leaves the game after having turned the ball over in consecutive possessions.  Q. Ross substitutes[2], leaving Shaun with the responsibility of running the offense:

  • [3:33] After EB sinks the back end, Hinrich brings the ball up for Chicago, trailing the Clips by only two.  He passes it off to Gordon out on the left wing, being guarded by Q, who immediately knocks the ball away.  The balls skates away into the backcourt and both Q and Gordon scamper after it, both diving for it as it dribbles out of bounds.  One of those hustle plays and it goes the Clippers' way.

  • [3:20] After the sideline inbounds, Shaun gets it to Elton on the left side, then runs behind Elton to the left corner, then slides baseline.  The play is blown dead when TT walks with the ball up top. 

  • [3:12] Hinrich doesn't waste much time in penetrating off a Malik Allen screen, which forces a switch - TT now taking Hinrich off the ball, with Shaun picking up Allen.  Once Hinrich hits the paint he's got PJ Brown out on the left wing.  PJ catches and dribbles in a couple of feet against Elton where he [Brown] likes to take that face-up jumper. The Bulls' spacing here isn't all that good, which allows Shaun to leave Allen and swat away Brown's shot.  Shaun goes the other way with the break.  Gordon stays with him the whole way, tying up Shaun as he goes up for the layup.  The ball squirts away as Shaun tries to salvage the attempt with a reverse.  Good instinct, better defense. 

    The Chicago portion of the sequence is an object lesson in spacing.  Why is it so important?  Because good spacing forces the defense to make tough decisions.  There just isn't enough time to send help, because the ball moves much faster than a defender ever can.  By the time the help defender arrives, the ball is long gone.  When the spacing sucks and everyone is clogging the lane, all a defender has to do is take a single step or two to rotate.  This is why PHX is impossible to defend. 

  • [2:59]  Livingston is on the ball.  He stays with Hinrich after Hinrich passes the rock off to Allen, who goes to PJ Brown in the post.  EB is playing PJ straight up.  Shaun hedges on the play as Hinrich moves over to the strong side.  Shaun quickly recognizes that, even though he's in the neighborhood of the play, an EB-PJ matchup doesn't warrant a double-team.  Brand ends up blocking Brown's shot.  It bounces Hinrich's way, but all he can do is launch a desperation, fall-away 3FGA that draws air as the shot clock expires.

  • [2:33] Shaun initiates the old give-and-go with Elton left side, up high.  Hinrich stays with Shaun as Shaun receives the ball from EB, then heads for the basket.  When Gordon meets Shaun underneath, Shaun fakes, catching Hinrich leaving his feet, jumping laterally in front of Shaun.  So Shaun wiggles right, in the opposite direction of Hinrich's leap.  He could've jumped into Hinrich to draw the foul, Cassell-style, but instead, Shaun waits for Hinrich to clear, leans in and banks it off the glass. 
    [Clippers 98, Chicago 94]

  • [2:21] Hinrich, with Shaun on him, dishes it off to Gordon up top on the right wing.  With Q already smothering Gordon, EB moves up to trap him.  Brown, who was EB's man, comes to help Gordon on the trap.  Gordon desperately lobs the ball to Brown, but it's tipped away, and Livingston is the first guy there.  He pushes it coast-to-coast against Hinrich.  As Shaun elevates, Hinrich grabs Livingston.  A flagrant-1: Two & the Ball.  Shaun hits both free throws.  Ben Gordon leaves the game for Chris Duhon.  For good. 

    Chicago fans could probably give me an explanation for this, as I'm sure not everyone outside of the Naçion totally understands the Maggette dynamic. 
    [Clippers 100, Chicago 94]

  • [2:04]  Off the inbounds, Maggette dumps it into EB in the post.  He shoots over Allen.
    [Clippers 102, Chicago 94]

  • [2:00] Hinrich brings it up left side against Shaun.  Hinrich tries a fancy cross-over move left, but Shaun stays in front of him. Hinrich's going nowhere, so he moves right behind a Deng screen, and now has a matchup against Maggette up top.  Damn if Maggette -- who as I mentioned in post sometime last week, is playing a lot better defensively -- doesn't let Hinrich breathe at all, forcing a Hinrich pass to Malik Allen, who's got ehhhh position at the foul line against Thomas.  TT contests the Allen jumper nicely and it's a brick.  The rebound is tipped back to Maggette.

    Fierce Team Defense. 

  • [1:41] Shaun is milking a little clock here, dribbling up top against Hinrich.  What a stellar matchup that's been a blast to watch: Livingston v. Hinrich.  Finally, with :11 to go on the shot clock, Shaun leaves it for EB way above the left elbow. Brand attempts a face-up over Allen, a shot he often drills, and this could pretty much ice it, but it's no good. Rebound Duhon.  The Bulls call a 20-second timout. 

  • [1:22] This time, Hinrich's on the weak side and Chicago has Duhon running the set.  It's a strong vote of confidence that Dunleavy follows suit and puts Livingston, again, on the ball -- this time against Duhon.  Duhon inbounds to Allen, who gives it back immediately.  Duhon, with the ball, charges directly for the paint, but Livingston stays in front of him the entire way, so Duhon is forced back out.  Tonight is one of Livingston's best defensive efforts of the season.  Duhon tries again; this time, Duhon is able to get a step on Shaun, but EB is there, waiting, and blocks it.  The ball bounces against the wood right into Elton's hand.

  • [1:13] Elton to Thomas, and Thomas seeing Q run the fly pattern behind the entire Chicago secondary, lobs a pass to Q about seven feet from the basket.  Q drives, then lays it up and in.
    [Clippers 104, Chicago 94]

  • [1:05] Q picks up Hinrich in the frontcourt.  PJ Brown gives Hinrich a pick, and EB inherits him momentarily on the switch up top, but Q recovers quickly.  We're down to 1:00, so Hinrich performs a quick cross-over, launches a shot from 20-feet, no good.  The rebound comes to TT, who is immediately fouled.

With 55.6 and a 10 point Clipper lead, that's basically it.  Shaun Livingston is the fourth quarter story, going for 10 points on 3-4 from the field and 4-4 from the line, recording two steals and a blocked shot on a crucial possession.  Beyond the stats, he stays in front of Hinrich down the stretch, forcing the Bulls to do stupid stuff like going to Brown and Allen late in possessions.

I want to mention a pivotal stretch late in the second half when the Clippers take advantage of a Brand-Sweetney matchup.  As we know, Elton makes his living in the mid-post.  But with a much larger, glacially slow Sweetney on him, EB does the smart thing - he starts much farther out on the wing.  Rather than try to muscle Sweetney for his spot in the post, Elton uses his speed to drive around Sweets.  From the moment Sweetney enters the game at [2:56, 2nd], Brand goes for 11 points on 4-4 from the field and 3-3 from the line.  11 points in 2:56. 

[1] Hinrich gets a driving layup with the Bulls down 12 with 0:46 remaining.  

[2] Gordon has just entered the game for Chicago.  He finishes the game 5-5 from the field with five turnovers.