In the third quarter, down 17 with the season on the line, the Clippers faced the worst conditions imaginable:  Kobe Bryant had lost consciousness, and there was nothing the Clippers’ trap could do about it.  On top of that, the Lakers’ ball pressure had completely stifled the Clippers’ inside game, effectively forcing the Clips to become an improvisational team in the halfcourt – which is never, ever a good idea.  Plus, the Lakers’ double-team was forcing Jason Hart to drill open jump shots, which wasn’t happening.  Bringing in Sam, given his first half appearance [a -11 in 5:37 during the 2nd], wasn’t exactly an enticing option either.  The season was careening into oblivion, and every strength the Clippers had asserted in last week’s win over the Lakers had been neutralized – a fittingly ironic end to a wretched year.

Sam Cassell’s redemptive return will be the prevailing narrative – and watching him school Smush Parker with the ol’ whirling dervish from the left side was the most satisfying sequence of the night – but the Clips won this game by reestablishing their defensive valor.  What was even more impressive was that the defensive resurgence didn’t bear its fruit until the outset of the fourth quarter.  The Clips made some valiant stands on the Laker end at the end of the third – Bryant got only one FGA the final 4:45 of the period – but the peripheral Lakers made their shots and the Clips could never quite get over the 5-7 point hump.  But you could sense something changing in the weight of the game. The Clips were now making good choices on the double-team and the help was starting to show up when it was needed.  

The Lakers sunk only six FGMs in the final quarter – one of those during the final minute after the game was wrapped up.  The Clippers played the Lakers off the screen to perfection.  They denied Bryant the ball in places he could hurt them most, and even with a couple of stupid fouls out on the perimeter, the Clippers began to shut him down.  By the time Bryant had cooled down, the Clips had wrested control of the Lakers’ weak side operation.   

With 8:45 remaining in the game, Kobe Bryant hit a couple of free throws for his 49th and 50th points to put the Lakers up 102-92.  Bryant wouldn’t score again.  The Clippers then went on a 17-1 run, a spurt punctuated by the Sam Cassell layup off the dribble against Parker to put the Clips up six with 3:49 to play.  Prior to that, Tim Thomas hit the 3PM to put the Clips up in the game for the first time.  We could review the Clippers’ FGMs, but I don’t believe the Clippers played that coherent of an offensive game, despite the high score [the Lakers are an atrocious defensive team.  Applying pressure on the ball is the only thing they do well].  I’d rather focus on the fact that the Lakers scored a single point on the 10 possessions during that span:

•    The Clippers give the Lakers a taste of their own medicine while Evans brings it upcourt.  Maggette is impressive here on the ball.  The triangle doesn’t really set until about :09 left on the shot clock as the Clippers confine the ball to the high right wing.  Mobley is manning up on Bryant as Sam drifts off Vujacic to play the passing lane between the ball and Bryant.  Walton has it at the top of the arc.  He swings it to Bryant, who has come up top to the right wing position, but Mobley tips it out of bounds.  

Off the inbounds, the Lakers have nothing going with :06 remaining on the clock.  Walton finds Vujacic in the right corner on the inbounds.   With time expiring, the only guy Walton can find is Bynum, who has gone to the right elbow.  EB flies in to the block the shot.  We go the other way.  [4th, 8:18]

•    This could’ve been disastrous, and probably doesn’t warrant mentioning because the rotation failed.  Evans gets the ball at the left elbow as Bryant swings around a stack [Walton & Bynum] on the low left post.  TT, who has Walton – the high man on the stack – darts off him to double up on Bryant.  When he does, Walton fades to the left corner. Bryant passes it to him there, and Walton misses the three.  This was a great set by the Lakers, because it put Thomas in an impossible position.  He has to step up and take Kobe, but there isn’t anyone to step out on Walton, unless Brand wants to the leave Bynum all alone underneath.  [4th, 8:00]

•    Bryant starts with it up top and gets a quick high S/R from Odom.  Off the screen, Brand joins Mobley with a trap on Bryant as he moves left along the arc.  Maggette picks up Bynum as he dives, but Bryant has no intention of passing the ball.  He launches a 21-footer over both defenders and it draws air.  If Bryant wanted Evans, there was nobody within eight feet of him.  [4th, 7:31]

•    The ball travels around the perimeter until Walton drops it into Bynum on the left block.  Bynum backs Brand in with a left-handed dribble, then goes up for a right-handed hook that clanks off the front rim.  The real story is away from the ball, where Mobley and Maggette crowd Bryant in the right mid-post.  Bryant tries to squirt up to the foul line to be in position for a pass out, but Mobley stays with him all the way.   When Brand collects the rebound, the Clips trail by only three. [4th, 6:54]

•    Bryant gets another high screen from Bynum.  When Bryant uses it to drive into the paint, Brand is there for him, and knocks away the ball.  The tip goes to Cassell, with Maggette trailing.   Maggette sinks the lauyp +1.   The game is tied [4th, 6:33]

•    Coming out of the timeout, Parker and Odom return.  This is the play where Bryant dishes it off to Bynum off that high S/R, and Bynum drives in and knees Maggette in the nuts – one of the worst I’ve ever seen.  It’s amazing to me that getting hit in the nuts somehow became a source of physical humor in various lowbrow comedies.  Someone explain.   

Bynum hits one of two FTAs – the only Laker point during the 17-1 run.  [4th, 6:20]

•    It goes up top to Walton out on the right perimeter.  Bynum sets the S/R for Walton, who sees daylight, but EB picks him up as he nears the rim.  Elton challenges the layup, and Walton misses it.  Great help from EB.  I know he wasn’t facing Bird-McHale-Parish out there, but I thought Elton had one of his better defensive quarters of the season in the fourth. [4th, 5:50]

•    The Clippers now have the lead and every indication is that Bryant has had enough of Andrew Bynum’s low post game and high S/Rs for anyone other than himself, and if you’ve watched the last two minutes of the game, you can’t blame him.  What the Lakers do here is pretty clever.  They isolate Bryant on the weak side, which makes it difficult for the Clippers to double team because it’s a long way over to Bryant.  The Lakers see that Bryant has only Mobley on him and get it to Bryant at the right elbow. In one motion, Bryant catches, elevates and shoots a fadeaway 19-footer and misses. [4th, 5:22]

•    In the early part of the possession – before the non-shooting foul/inbounds – the Lakers try to go into Bynum on the left block.  Bynum isn’t having much luck against Brand, and he’s looking for the pass out.  He finds Odom out on the perimeter.  Odom drives, but gets fouled by Thomas with :08.  Off the inbounds, Parker gets trapped in the corner.  He tries to pass out to Bynum, but the ball dribbles away and TT picks it up. Again, Bryant is away from the play, standing over on the weak side. [4th, 4:46]

•    The Clippers have a four point lead.  Bryant starts with it up top against Mobley. He gets a flimsy screen from Odom, drives right, gets sealed off by Mobley and TT, but draws contact on Thomas.  

Parker gets it up top off the inbounds.  He swings the ball over to Bryant out on the left wing.  When Cassell leaves Parker to double Bryant, Bryant kicks it back to Parker.  When Cassell recovers, Parker shows him a little ball fake, drives past him, but as he goes up, Brand is there to challenge and almost block his shot.  In the scrum for the rebound, Turiaf comes up with it, but his putback with time expiring is no good.  Once again, Brand controls the interior.  [4th, 4:05]

On another night, Bryant hits some of those shots and the story plays out differently or maybe Walton sinks that 3PA.  But good timing on double-teams and smart decisions in defending the S/R somehow lull teams into lousy shooting streaks.  Funny how it always works for San Antonio and Detroit.  Tonight, in the fourth quarter, it works for the Clippers.

Corey Maggette played his best game of the season.  Yep, better even than the Washington game a couple weeks back.  Probably second only to Game Six of the 2006 Western Conference Finals.  Even with 15 FGAs, along with the 24 FTAs [essentially an additional 11 FGAs], he managed to find enough possessions to dish out nine assists.  A bunch of those were to Elton on the left side, further evidence that Corey has realized the true value of his penetration: It draws defenders away from the block.  This means that if Corey picks his spots correctly, he’ll always have at least two options on the play – one of those almost always Elton Brand [when Mobley is strong side, there’s that too – see 5:22 of the first quarter].  And if Corey can find EB, like he did tonight, there’s almost always a FGM there.  If he can’t, there’s always the drive to the basket with the possible foul call.

It’s great to see Elton demanding the ball in the stretch drive.  Tonight reminded me so much of last May; the fourth quarter looked like a lot like Game Two against PHX.  When the Clippers use their athleticism in a measured halfcourt game without forfeiting pace or transitional defense, they’re a tough team.

Finally, there was Sam Cassell’s night.  There’s nothing to extrapolate on here because Sam’s game has never changed.  There are no theories for his success tonight other than to say that Sam Cassell is the one guy in the league who wakes up every morning and says, “Let me see if I got this right…I get to play basketball all day and you’re going to pay me how much?!  To play basketball??”