In hindsight, selling my tickets to this game might not have been a great decision. To be honest, I never thought the Clippers had much of a chance. Every time I imagined Chauncey Billups trying to guard D-Wade, I wanted to make like Lloyd Christmas and find a happy place. I didn’t have much interest in watching the slaughter first-hand from Section 206. As a salutary benefit, I netted enough on the sale to cover about 20% of the cost of my half-season ticket package. Turns out I missed one of the most exciting Clippers games of the last few years.
Actually, “exciting” probably isn’t the right word. It was exciting in the sense that it came down to the wire, but I ultimately ended up feeling more frustrated and emotionally exhausted than excited. The fourth quarter was a war of attrition; each team squandered multiple opportunities to seize control. It seemed like the Clips missed a makeable shot every time they had a chance to really build some momentum, not least of which was Chris Paul’s missed floater as the regulation buzzer sounded. Overall, the Clippers shot 5-17 in the fourth and the Heat were 4-12.
Adding to the frustration was the horrendous officiating, which, unlike in the Portland game, was impartial in its atrocity. Neither team benefited disproportionately from the bad calls, but the fans certainly suffered. The questionable calls slowed the game down and distracted us from the intense battle going on between blown calls. I don’t want to get into the habit of enumerating the terrible calls after every game, so let’s just say that LeBron’s egregious travel at the end of regulation more or less canceled out DeAndre Jordan’s goaltend in overtime.
Partially because of the poor shooting and heinous officiating, this did not have the feel of a coming out party for the Clippers. One would be hard-pressed to say that the Clippers looked like a championship contender. The Heat were in control for most of the night, and the specter of a throat-stomping 10-0 spurt fueled by a flurry of steals and fast break dunks loomed over the entire game. The pundits are already attributing the Heat’s loss to LeBron’s missed free throws and the refs’ no-call on DJ’s goaltend. While this overlooks a great defensive effort by the Clippers, it’s not too far from the truth. To be sure, this was a great win for the Clippers; but it felt more like a bad loss for the Heat.
Chris Paul was the lone source of aesthetic beauty in this gnarly game. On a court full of superstars, Paul shone the brightest. After two consecutive subpar games, he brought his A-game for this nationally televised showcase. Being in the limelight brought out the swagger and aggression that we hadn’t seen yet this year. He posted a sparkling stat line of 27 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and only 1 turnover. Unlike in previous games, Paul actively looked for his own shot. I’m not sure if this was a point of emphasis from the coaching staff or if Paul initiated it himself. He is an infinitely more devastating offensive weapon when he makes himself a threat to score. Looking at last year’s numbers, one suspects that Paul conserves his offensive bursts for “primetime” games. In the 2010-11 regular season, CP3′s “Usage Rate” (a measure of the percentage of a team’s possessions that are “used” by a given player) was 21.1. In the playoffs, his Usage Rate jumped to 24.1. His scoring average skyrocketed from 15.9 points per game in the regular season to 22.0 in the playoffs. Paul obviously knows his own body and limitations better than anyone else (although I do fancy myself somewhat of an expert on his rotund body), so I have to trust that it’s for the best that he does not try to “get his” every night.
Standing in stark contrast to the brilliant and cocksure Paul was LeBron James. Among casual fans, LeBron has developed a reputation as a late-game choke artist. The stats do not bear out this satisfying and convenient theory, but the anecdotal evidence is strong enough that we can’t completely ignore it. Against Golden State on Tuesday, LeBron did not attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarter, and shot just two free throws. Last night marked another contribution to the lore of LeChoke. Although he was more aggressive than he was against the Warriors (three field goal attempts and ten free throws), he missed four FTs in the final five minutes, including one with five seconds left that could have given the Heat the lead. Unlike much of the basketball-watching universe, I’m not a LeBron hater. I don’t revel in his failures. It kills me that he hasn’t reached his unlimited potential; that he’s still just a terrified kid who bites his nails in crunch time. As Clipper fans, we want to beat LeBron on his best day; he denied us that thrill by choking in the clutch. I don’t read too much into LeBron’s missed free throws, but I am highly concerned by his post-game reaction. Here’s a LeBron quote from the locker room: ”We played Miami Heat basketball…we defended, gave ourselves a chance to win. We can be satisfied, you know, you don’t like to lose, but we’re not going to hang our heads about this one.” Excuse me??? Can you imagine Michael Jordan saying “we can be satisfied” after missing game-winning FTs? The evidence of James’ lack of killer instinct continues to mount.
A few other notes from the game:
-I don’t think Vinny Del Negro’s performance has been bad enough to warrant the criticism that has been heaped upon him. On Tuesday night, Bill Simmons tweeted: “The Clips can’t contend with Vinny Del Negro. He’s a strategic abomination. It’s unbelievable. Maybe the worst game coach I have ever seen.” I think it’s far too early to pass judgment on VDN; not even Red Auerbach could be expected to seamlessly integrate three new starters with a severely truncated training camp. Having said that, Vinny made a couple head-scratching moves last night. First, I would rather watch small puppies get asphyxiated than a Mo-Foye-Gomes-Evans-Cook lineup. The Clippers trotted out that vomit-inducing lineup early in the second quarter. In just over two minutes of action, our illustrious Bench Mob managed to get outscored by six points. Where is the offense going to come from in that lineup? Our best case scenario is a forced Mo Williams jumper with two on the shot clock. Against Portland on Tuesday, the same lineup was outscored by eight points in three minutes. To Vinny’s credit, he didn’t return to that permutation in the second half last night. VDN would be wise to keep at least one member of the Paul, Griffin, Butler trio on the court at all times.
-Speaking of baffling substitutions, Del Negro subbed Reggie Evans in for Blake Griffin at the 1:01 mark of the second quarter. OK, Blake had two fouls – I guess it makes some sense to take him out so he doesn’t pick up a third. But there was no excuse not to put Griffin back in when the Clippers got the ball at the 0:22 mark. The Clippers were inbounding after a dead ball, so they could have made the substitution without calling a timeout. In a game that was obviously going to come down to the wire, why wouldn’t you put Griffin in for your last offensive play of the the half? There’s virtually zero risk of Blake picking up his third foul in that situation. It worked out fine, with Chauncey Billups nailing a three, but that doesn’t excuse Vinny’s failure to put our best offensive lineup on the floor in that situation.
-Caron Butler had one of the most incredible moves I’ve ever seen – especially from an immobile 31-year old coming off major knee surgery. As he drove to the bucket in the second quarter, he eluded two defenders by dribbling behind his back and through his legs at the same time. I can’t do it justice with words; I’ll post the Youtube clip as soon as I can find it. Unfortunately, Caron was so pumped up about his awesome move that he attempted to finish it off with a wild, flailing reverse layup (which he airballed) instead of dishing off to a wide open Blake Griffin. Classic Tuff Juice.
-Blake had somewhat of an off game offensively, shooting 9-23 from the field. However, his defense was vastly improved. His and DeAndre’s excellent help defense allowed Chauncey and Caron to pressure Wade and James with impunity. This game gave me hope that Blake’s defensive issues are more about effort than ability. That he’s able to step up his performance for a nationally televised game against Miami indicates that, with focus and encouragement, he can eventually become a plus defender.
-I couldn’t go this entire post without mentioning CP3′s ridiculous play to end the third quarter. This was the exact moment when I officially stopped caring about Eric Gordon:
Bottom line: I’m about as subdued as I could possibly be after an overtime win against the Heat. I suppose it’s a great sign that we were able to defeat Miami without playing particularly well. Oh yeah, and Chris Paul is still a superstar, so that’s nice. The Lakers are up next, and we’ll need an equally energetic performance to topple them. I think I’m going to attempt write a running diary of that game, so all six of you readers can look forward to that.
EDIT: I swear on Baron Davis’s grave that I posted this article before I saw the “Statements” post at ClipperBlog. Any similarity is entirely coincidental. And really, the only similarity is the title and the effusive Chris Paul praise.