The Clippers flirted with a double-digit lead through the first three quarters tonight. As late as the middle of the third quarter, they held a seven point lead. Even after Minnesota crept to within three points by the end of the third, the game didn’t seem to be in danger. Both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin looked unstoppable, and it appeared that they would carry the Clippers to another fourth quarter surge, a la the Denver game last week. And then all of a sudden Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley went into NBA Jam “He’s On Fire” mode. I don’t have access to the fourth quarter stats yet, but I know the T-Wolves made their first nine attempts of the quarter, and the vast majority of those came from Williams and Beasley. It’s not as if the Clippers played terrible defense – most of the buckets came off contested jumpers. Coming into tonight’s contest, Williams was shooting 32% on mid-range shots and 25% on threes; Beasley was at 33% and 43%, respectively. I can live with those guys shooting contested jumpers.
This is not to say that I’m ready to brush off the loss completely. There were some troubling aspects to the game tonight, including:
-Caron Butler continues to struggle. Butler was 1-10 tonight, and is shooting just 14-47 (29.8%) in his last five games. The Clippers desperately need a third scoring option behind Blake and CP, and they really miss the steady scoring punch that Butler brought early on in the season.
-When Butler isn’t hitting from outside, Mo Williams becomes especially crucial. Tonight he was 4-12, and is shooting just 32.4% over his last five. Mo and Caron don’t seem to be getting the same kind of wide open looks that they were receiving at the start of the season. I attribute that largely to Chauncey Billups’ absence. Billups was the best three-point shooter on the team, so his presence spread the floor and created open looks for everyone else. Moreover, Billups is excellent at making the extra “swing” pass to find the open shooter; the perimeter ball movement has been much less crisp with Foye replacing Billups.
-Speaking of Billups, the Clippers are 5-5 since he went down. Yikes.
-Darko Milicic continues to stymy Blake Griffin. Blake had a great overall game, but he was silenced by Darko in the fourth quarter. Darko also did a great job on Blake the last time these two teams played. With Blake unable to score in the post late in the game, the Clippers reverted to their jumpshot-only offense, and the fourth quarter point differential tells you all you need to know about how that worked out.
It’s becoming pretty clear that the Clippers’ success will be a function of their outside shooting. Tonight they shot 2-11 and, more importantly, surrendered ten threes to the Wolves. We simply aren’t good enough defensively to expect to win games when we’re not hitting jumpers.
It would have been nice to pick up a W tonight before departing on a six game road trip. The pessimist in me senses that the Clippers overachieved in the first half of the season, and stole some games that they should have lost (@POR, @DEN, @ORL, @PHI come to mind). They are 5-5 since the Billups injury, and haven’t looked good against a good team since their win over Oklahoma City on Jan. 30. My more optimistic side hopes that this loss will jolt them out of their funk, and help them stay focussed during their upcoming road trip. Either way, we’ll learn a lot about this team over the course of the next six games.