One of the hallmarks of the Clippers' ascension over the past month has been their ability to find good shots in the halfcourt. It seems like such a basic principle, but anyone who's been following this team over the course of the entire season knows that there were weeks when it seemed like the Clips couldn't get Elton a 15-footer off the left block or Cat Mobley a wide open look on the weak side.
After they bottomed out about a month ago, the Clips actually started running an offense and, all of a sudden, they began to look like a competent offensive basketball team -- racking up assists on fluid sets, doing Detroit-type stuff in the halfcourt, making smart interior passes, etc. The 16-0 run the Clippers put together at the end of the first and beginning of the second encapsulated everything they've been doing well – using penetration by the PGs and Corey to get open looks for Mobley and Thomas, putting Maggette on the strong side, and working to take advantage of every mismatch. Even without Brand on the floor, the Clips were able to exploit each guy's offensive strengths against Denver's lesser defenders. With the exception of a lull between the middle of the second to the middle of third quarters, the Clippers were able to sustain this new offensive glasnost last night – that is until the crunch time possessions inside of two minutes.
After the Clips overcame a Denver swell in the third quarter, they never trailed from 3:53 in the third until Linas Kleiza hit his only shot of the night to put the Nuggets on top. But you could see the writing on the wall at the outset of the fourth quarter. Just after the beautiful Mobley pass to Ross for a three-point play against the zone, the Nuggets began to find easy paths to the basket. On top of that, Mobley was determined to post up Blake, and he missed two fadeaways over Blake that could've extended the Clipper lead to double-digits.
How were the Nuggets able to score 30 points in the fourth quarter after scuttling for decent shots all night? First off, Denver got lucky on a couple early possessions in the quarter – a circus shot by J.R. Smith in the lane against a stifling Clipper defense, then again off a Kaman-block-of-Anthony that goes out to Iverson on the 3-point line. If that's not enough, Kaman again blocks a shot a minute later – this one Kleiza's – and once again, the ball ends up in Iverson's hands. At the 4:00 minute-mark, another long rebound off a brick – this one by Blake – ends up immediately in Nene's hands. He zips it to Iverson on the arc while Hart is still underneath. Another three. Ten points on fluke plays resulting from quality defensive stands. Throw in a quick-release Maggette jumper, a low-percentage shot by Ross as the shot clock is winding down, and a set that culminates with Kaman getting the ball on the high right post at :03, and the game is tied with under 4:00 left.
The two teams trade baskets: Hart hits a wide, wide, wide open 17-footer after Iverson decides to double Brand out on the wing, allowing Hart to drift unmolested to the left corner. But on the next possession, Corey fumbles the ball driving into the lane, and Anthony gets an easy slam on a breakaway. On the possession after that, Maggette has his shot blocked on the way up, but Brand follows Maggette in, and is there for the tip. Maggette makes amends on the next possession, getting out in the open court quickly after Brand strips the ball from Iverson. He finishes with ease, and the Clips have a four point lead with 2:13 left.
It's an uncomfortable lead, though, because the Clips haven't run a coherent set in an hour. It all feels very December-January: clear-outs for Maggette that result in turnovers and blocked shots, settling for crappy jump shots because they can't get the ball into the post. The one quality shot the Clippers are able to work – Elton gets deep into the painted area for a 7-footer against Camby -- doesn't go. And more times than not when you build on landfill, you're destined to sink.
The Nuggets will have the ball for another five possessions from here on out. They will score 11 points.
- Why were so many people ready to anoint Denver as a new power in the West when they acquired Iverson? Because setting up two scorers like Anthony and Iverson on the same side of the court with Iverson handling the ball is lethal. Nene sets a screen for Iverson up top with 'Melo hanging out against Cat off the left block. Kaman and Ross trap AI as Nene then rolls to set the screen for 'Melo. So here comes 'Melo curling into the lane off that screen. As AI rockets the ball into 'Melo, Kaman drops off Iverson and picks up 'Melo. Kaman does a nice job here, but we're talking about Carmelo Anthony. He puts it up and draws the foul.
Clippers 89, Denver 87 [2:00]
- Mobley holds it up top on the right arc. In front of him, Hart is trying to post up Iverson. The set is materializing very nicely. Here's what's going on: A cross-screen for Kaman as Hart drops down off the mid-right post and screens Nene, all the while Brand runs interference by dashing up from the low block to his favorite spot on the elbow. The Clippers are giving the Nuggets a lot of shit to worry about because every Clipper is exactly where he likes to be: Mobley has room on the arc; EB at the left elbow; Maggette is on left arc, ready to cut; and now Kaman has deep position on the right block against a recovering Nene.
The ball goes into Kaman. He dribbles left into the lane, stops, spins, and floats a pretty left-handed hook shot over Nene. And because Corey was diving, everyone over on the weak side for Denver had to be careful. Kaman was never doubled. A near-perfect set. Bottle it and label it.
Clippers 91, Denver 87 [1:43]
- The next Nuggets' set consists of the following: Allen Iverson, to his right, takes Jason Hart to primary school. EB tries to challenge the shot, but it's futile.
Clippers 91, Denver 89 [1:31]
- After their best set of the night, the Clippers show us their absolute, vintage-Atlanta-game worst: Mobley holds it up top right again, and nothing happens until Dunleavy wants a timeout at :10. What was supposed to be happening? Well, Hart was positioning to post up Iverson again, just like last time. Kaman goes over to the weak side to set a baseline screen for Corey. 'Melo runs under the screen and picks up Corey quickly on the right arc. This is where not having good passing guards kills you. A better passer than Cat would've zipped it into Corey as he comes over. There's time. No a lot of it, but it's doable. For whatever reason, Mobley stays pat and rigor mortis sets in and the Clips blow a timeout.
But that's okay, because the Clippers will come out of the timeout with the mother of all dry-erased sets, right?
With :07, Corey holds it on the right arc. This is looking familiar. Hart's screen for EB at the left elbow is pathetic. Freeze the screen and what you have is Kaman, Brand, and Hart all within about four feet of each other in a clogged lane against three Denver defenders. Finally, Kaman drops out to set a screen on the weak side on Kleiza to free up Mobley. Mobley pops up to the top of the circle at :05, but Kleiza recovers, and Maggette is a little late with the pass. Not unconscionably late, but enough that the window for Cat's shot closes. Mobley doesn't have a great look. Kaman returns for another screen, but with :02 left on the clock, Denver traps Cat. He throws up an airball.
- If you're gonna bring Quinton Ross into the game, why don't you put him on Allen Iverson, who is bringing the ball upcourt? The same Allen Iverson who just schooled Jason Hart.
Iverson crosses the left arc against Hart with :19 left on the shot clock. He gets two screens – the first from Anthony, who quickly dives to the hoop, taking Mobley with him, the second from Nene, which gives AI a clean, open look from the right elbow.
All of this takes four seconds.
Clippers 91, Denver 91 [0:57.4]
- Hart gets it into Kaman in the left high post. Corey, who is way outside beyond the left arc, then takes off, cutting to Kaman's right, thereby losing Iverson who is caught on the wing. Kaman hands the ball off to a diving Maggette, who goes in and…misses the layup. But EB has position underneath on Nene. He gets the putback.
Clippers 93, Denver 91 [0:43.6]
- Iverson against Hart again on the left side. Anthony comes over – covered by Cat – to give Iverson the screen. Mobley quickly picks up Iverson off the switch. As Anthony rolls toward the hoop, he's immediately doubled. This is emerging as one of the Clips' better defensive sequences of the night. AI tries to take Cat right. Iverson sees Kleiza set up on the right arc. As Iverson dishes the ball to Kleiza, Camby buys Kleiza some room by screening Maggette. Kleiza dribbles right toward that space, then picks up his dribble. He's got the shot, but doesn't shoot and instead looks around to see what's available:
Nothing. Then, as Brand picks him up, Kleiza does the weirdest thing: He heaves the ball with :08 left on the shot clock, an absolute brick off the glass. Hart is mauled by Anthony as he goes in for the rebound and the ball is awarded to Denver.
After the timeout, Anthony inbounds it to Iverson on the left arc, where he's covered by Quinton Ross. AI dumps it into Anthony on the left block against Cat Mobley. Anthony tries to back Mobley in, but he's having no luck. Once EB comes over for the double-team, he tries to reverse course and drive around EB with his right. He's headed backwards, but sees Kleiza all alone in the right corner. Anthony passes it over to Kleiza. Before Jason Hart can close – Nene does a nice job holding Hart captive – Kleiza hits his only shot of the night.
This is what happens when there are two superstars on the floor for the same team. The old chestnut in sports is 'make someone else beat you.'
They did and they did.
Denver 94, Clippers 93 [0:15.8]
- I'm not sure why Ross is in the game on the offensive end, but my best guess is that, with no remaining timeouts, Dunleavy wants his best inbounder bringing the ball in against one of the longer teams in the league.
Ross gets it to Maggette, who holds it at the top of the arc against Anthony with :09.5 left. He immediately takes off to his right, down the gut of the lane toward the basket. As Maggette reaches the right elbow on the drive, Iverson stabs at the ball and knocks it loose.
The Clippers foul Iverson who makes both with :04.5
Denver 96, Clippers 93 [:04.5]
- With no timeouts remaining, the Clippers have to move the ball the length of the court. Amazingly, Maggette's pass finds Hart just inside the arc. Hart is able to step back and get a clean look, but his shot clanks off the front of the rim.
With some execution, the Clippers get out of this one alive. But with the exception of that nice set for Kaman, the Clippers never establish any advantages in the halfcourt down the stretch. They leave the onus on Jason Hart to defend Allen Iverson until it's far too late.
 Like, you know, actually run stuff off the ball below the foul line! A baseline cross-screen! Who could've concocted such a beautiful thing!
 How does Denver not score on, like, every possession?
 Again, this is the problem with having lousy wing passers. Mobley and Maggette each have terrific qualities as players. They're good guys. But in an end-of-the-game halfcourt set, neither has the confidence to zip a pass where there's little margin for error. In situations like these, the difference between a good pass and a not-so-good pass is, like, 0.3 seconds. That's how long it takes for a defender to recover, that's how long a shooter has to get a clean look.
 Cat thrashes Anthony as he tries to work his way across. It's funny, and one of those things I like about Cat.