The Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 74-71, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, dropping Portland's record to 16-15.
A few weeks back I called that game against Oklahoma City the best basketball I had seen in nearly a year. Well, this ain't that.
This one was an NBA naysayer's paradise, a "lockout game" to top all lockout games, a game in which the Blazers were the only team to score 23 or more points in a quarter, managing to do it once. They celebrated that early first quarter success by hitting the teens twice before bottoming out with 11 in the fourth.
Portland's third game in three nights, L.A.'s second game in two nights, the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge due to injury, the invisibility of Chris Paul for three quarters, the late start due to TNT's stupid schedule and the endless television timeouts combined to form a toxic cocktail.
What you have to admire about Blazers guard Raymond Felton is his insistence on being the sore thumb no matter how ugly the surroundings get.
34 combined turnovers in a game? No problem, Felton finished with a game-high five. Chris Paul didn't make a shot until the 9 minute mark of the fourth quarter? No problem, Felton finished a game-worst 0-for-7. Jamal Crawford struggled with L.A.'s pressure and committed some careless mistakes? No problem, Felton airmailed a pass into the stands, pulled off a Jarrett Jack memorial step on the sideline and then threw a pass so poorly off of Kurt Thomas's ankle that it probably caused a contusion even though Thomas's body is made of contusion-resistant metal ore. Then what did he do after all of that, with the crowd turning on him and the boos hanging out there? No problem, he decided to dance a little jig on the court coming out of a timeout as if he didn't have a care in the world.
Blazers coach Nate McMillan finally, finally, finally cut his playing time? No problem, Felton packed all of that awful into 24 minutes of court time. I've spent the last two hours trying to come up with comparables for his play on Thursday night, and the only thing that's coming to mind is when Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee left that crucial National Basketball Players Association meeting early, during the heart of the lockout, and declared to reporters that some of his fellow union members were "ready to fold." Yes, that's correct, the only thing that compares to Felton's game was someone carelessly and thoughtlessly undercutting his side's bargaining position during a billion dollar negotiation.
Thought the ugliness was only on the court? No problem, Felton doubled down and passed the buck in his post-game comments.
This Blazers loss wasn't just Felton, not by a long shot. But he's the face of this team when it struggles, when things don't go as planned and especially when Aldridge isn't there to provide some sanity, order and, most of all, hope.
"The pressure tonight, again, I call it a self-destruction," McMillan said. "Again, this was us, this was us. It wasn't the Clippers. This was us not executing down the stretch and not winning that fourth quarter."
Yes, "self-destruction" pops from that line but the key word really is: "again." Over and over, that word popped up in McMillan's post-game comments, yet another hint at his frustration with the team's late-game play, especially from his guards.
Losing an 18-point lead in the second half, as the Clippers found legs in the second half that the Blazers didn't seemed prepared or equipped to match, will make this feel like a loss given away. But credit All-Star guard Chris Paul for shaking off a Felton-esque first three quarters to score all 13 of his points in the fourth, including five points in the final three minutes and eight seconds to push L.A. over the top.
"I pride myself on the last two or three minutes of the game," Paul said. "If we're up two, or down one, I pride myself on managing situations, [forcing] turnovers, getting good shots. I'm used to it."
"It's just a matter of time before Chris starts taking over the game," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. "When it gets close, he wants the ball in his hands, not only to score but to make the easy plays... Having Chris out there to control things is a great weapon."
Paul was the nail in the coffin while forward Blake Griffin, without his All-Star adversary in LaMarcus Aldridge to slow him down or play him even, was the early hammer. Hitting the offensive boards time and again, Griffin succeeded in creating scoring opportunities for himself even though Blazers forward Gerald Wallace, and others, did their best to shield him from the ball and keep him on the perimeter. The final damage was 21 points and 14 rebounds, and if not for Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan pounding the offensive glass early, the Clippers' improbable comeback would have been impossible.
But Griffin did enough to keep it close and then the Clippers whittled and whittled, before Paul created his own shots late. And he made them, as he seemingly always does, when it mattered.
"I've been in this situation time and time again," Paul said. "When you're in games like this it comes down to certain plays, teams tighten up. It all comes down to who makes the big plays."
"They had us on the ropes without LaMarcus Aldridge," he added. "When you have somebody like L.A. everybody knows where the ball is going down the stretch. I think they're still trying to figure that out."
L.A.'s defense and Portland's lack of clear decision-making made Paul's point as clear as day. Blazers forward Nicolas Batum scored 15 points in the first quarter but took just one shot in the fourth, finishing with 19 points on the night. Wallace never got going at all on offense, finishing with just seven points, and Portland's guards were dealing with low-percentage looks far too often..
"I thought we were really stagnant the entire second half," McMillan said. "Walking the ball down the floor. Getting into our sets late. They picked up the pressure, we were getting into our sets sometimes under 15 seconds. Then you're playing maybe one option as opposed to pushing the ball against this group, getting it up the floor and getting into your offense with 20 seconds. Their pressure disrupted and we didn't keep a calm head down the stretch."
Again. Again. Again.
Random Game Notes
- Here's my CBS game story if you're interested.
- I added LaMarcus Aldridge's post-game comments on his ankle to the top of this post. He said he definitely expects to play in the All-Star Game next week.
- Funny exchange during the nightmare third quarter stretch from Felton. I joked, "Felton showcasing his whole game for the national tv audience in this third quarter." Former Blazers guard Patty Mills replied, requesting Felton's stat line as he was not watching the game. I had to clarify that I was joking, which prompted about a dozen fans to message Mills to tell him he is needed in Portland immediately. Can't help but laugh at that playing out in real time as the debacle on the court was unfolding.
- Great stat unearthed by Matt Moore and Prez Of Death: Felton leads the NBA in most shots from 26 feet or deeper without a make this season (he's 0-for-17).
- This highlight dunk by Blazers guard Elliot Williams made TNT's Steve Kerr exclaim that Williams has "bouncy legs."
- Blazers coach Nate McMillan will surely point out a different segment of the game tape to Williams, the play in which he nearly fell over while trying to guard Chris Paul before getting mixed up and failing to switch, leaving Kenyon Martin wide open for a short jumper, which he converted. Regardless, the in-house fan sentiment for Williams to play more continues to grow exponentially.
- Williams attacks possessions on offense, a skill that really stands out on this roster. He works at that after practices religiously, whether it's the swipe through move, the clear out move, his first step from a stop. He's making the case for himself.
- I felt for McMillan during the stretch when Matthews lost the ball on the perimeter -- something that's been happening a lot this season -- in the fourth quarter, so he inserted Felton, who promptly committed two turnovers and missed a terrible contested runner. Felton was pulled three minutes later for Matthews. Anyone who has ever coached youth sports knows exactly what McMillan went through during those four minutes. "I can't win! I can't win!"
- Before the game, McMillan took a little dig at France that raised my eyebrows in discussing Nicolas Batum: "He plays a finesse game. At times he plays as if he is in his country playing. Over here, in the NBA, it's more of a physical game. If you finesse a shot to the basket, the officials are not going to bail you out. You have to be aggressive and attack the basket. He's had a couple plays here in the last few games where he's dunked the ball or gone to the free throw line." Some bulletin board material from a Team USA assistant for the French national team in advance of the 2012 Olympics.
- Sign of the night: "Blake, Take your Kia and go home. This is our house."
- Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro on LaMarcus Aldridge before the game: "He's their go-to guy. He's an All-Star. He's a difficult, difficult cover for everybody. The way he shoots the ball offensively, his length defensively, gets them out on the break, he runs, he posts up deep, he gets to that right hand. There's no question, he's one of the top power forwards in the game right now."
- Cool scene in the Clippers post-game locker room. Paul was asked about his strong late-game performance and he referenced John Hollinger of ESPN.com's analysis of his strong late-game play, as Hollinger was standing there. Doesn't get much better than that for a writer.
We didn't execute, of course, down the stretch. Their defense went to switching the second half, and some of the sets that we were getting early, they switched pretty much everything and what we've got to do in that situation is recognize where the mismatch was and get the ball there. We basically got stagnant and it became a one-on-one basketball game.
I don't think it was didn't want to take shots. Our guards have to recognize when there's a switch or a mismatch and you've got to get that ball moving. Try to take advantage of some post-ups in situations like that. We pretty much to one pass and a shot or no pass and try to penetrate and attack. It wasn't any movement. Only thirteen assists this entire game. I thought that was the difference. We got stagnant in the second half.
The first half they weren't switching. The second half they were switching everything. When you switch everything you take those cuts and those screens that were freeing each other, freeing our guys up, away. That was the thing they were doing. They were switching bigs on guards and guards on bigs. When a team is doing that, you've got to recognize where the mismatch is and try to take advantage of it.
It comes down to execution. 28 points in the second half. I think you're up 17 or 18 in the second half. I thought we were really stagnant the entire second half. Walking the ball down the floor. Getting into our sets late. They picked up the pressure, we were getting into our sets sometimes under 15 seconds. Then you're playing maybe one option as opposed to pushing the ball against this group, getting it up the floor and getting into your offense with 20 seconds. Their pressure disrupted and we didn't keep a calm head down the stretch.
We were better in the first half. I thought the energy was good. The second half, of course, they're behind. The pressure is going to pick up. We didn't attack that. We knew that one of the big things is you've got to be calm in situations like this and we lost our head, I thought.
It starts with our guards. I think that we got into our offensive sets, we didn't recognize some things. We've got to do a better job.
They all hurt. You're losing games that you have control of. It comes down to getting stops defensively, when you have to, and offensively executing your offense. The pressure tonight, again I call it a self-destruction again, this was us, this was us. It wasn't the Clippers. This was us not executing down the stretch and not winning that fourth quarter.