Facing their second four-game losing streak of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers had to either step up in a hostile environment against a potential playoff opponent, or crumble under pressure and use the absence of Chris Paul as an excuse.
Well, judging by their 101-100 loss to the struggling Portland Trail Blazers, the Clippers chose the latter option, falling short because of poor late-game execution. Coach Vinny Del Negro foreshadowed the Clippers' crunch-time issues after their 93-88 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Thursday.
"We've just got to be a little sharper, especially in the fourth quarter. We've just got to be able to close some games out and know how to do it a little better," Del Negro said.
The Clippers went scoreless over the last 2:38 of the game, relinquishing a nine-point lead, 100-91, in disconcerting fashion. Their offense stagnated as the Clippers fluctuated between hero ball (isolations and tough shots) and hot potato (swinging the ball around with no purpose) to let the Blazers back into the game. Without their floor general, Paul, the Clippers looked lost down the stretch.
Luckily for the Clippers, revenge couldn't come any sooner. In a rare set of back-to-back games against the same team, the Clippers will face the Blazers again Sunday night at Staples Center. The last time the Clippers lost four games in a row, they responded with their 17-game winning streak. However, with an eight-game road trip looming after Sunday, they probably won't be as fortunate.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Battle of the benches
Heading into the game, there was no question which team had the better bench. The Clippers lead the NBA in bench scoring (41.5 PPG), while the Blazers rank dead last (16.5 PPG). Except it didn't look that way in the first half, when the Clippers' bench outscored the Blazers' bench only 16-14. The spark didn't last, of course, as the Blazers' bench scored only two points in the second half, compared to 27 points from the Clippers' bench. But the first-half stalemate between the benches made a significant difference in the game.
Griffin bounces back
After a disappointing game against the Suns (12 points, eight rebounds) in which he looked hobbled by his sprained left ankle, Griffin returned to form and just missed a triple-double -- 24 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists. He picked apart the Blazers' defense, finding open 3-point shooters and cutters, as well as DeAndre Jordan for a trademark lob. Whether it was a dunk, hook shot or jumper, Griffin had an answer for every Blazers defender.
"It starts with me, I've got to do a better job, setting a tone early and being a leader out there, especially when Chris isn’t out there," Griffin said after the loss to the Suns. While the Clippers didn't get the result they wanted, Griffin did his part and stuck by his bold statement.
The Clippers took a commanding 100-91 lead after a Lamar Odom dunk with 2:38 remaining, only to go scoreless on their last six offensive possessions. J.J. Hickson made two free throws with 45 seconds left to give Portland a 101-100 lead, and then a head-scratching sequence occurred. Coming out of a timeout, Matt Barnes threw a poor entry pass to Griffin that was picked off by Nicolas Batum. Just 19 seconds later, Batum fired a kickout pass to Damian Lillard that ended up in the first row. Neither play made much sense, but ultimately, it didn't have an effect on the game. Jamal Crawford got two looks at the end, a contested layup and 19-foot jumper, but both shots rattled out.