LOS ANGELES -- If Lob City is going to be a functioning municipality, then it's going to need some law and order. Every day can't be a celebratory parade or a civic orgy. Somebody has to sweep the streets, fill the potholes and pick up the garbage.
During the first week of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers delivered spectacle and frills, and entered Sunday's action as the NBA's most efficient offense. Unfortunately, the Clippers' defense was every bit as putrid as their offense was prolific. They knew they’d need a couple of weeks to craft a coherent defensive game plan, but they never imagined that they’d rank dead last in the NBA defensively a week into the season, giving up an unsightly 113.3 points per 100 possessions.
On Sunday night, the Clippers showed signs of life on the defensive end in their 93-88 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. The sellout crowd was treated to its fair share of acrobatics above the rim courtesy of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but the Clippers fought this game in the trenches for 36 minutes, then weathered a scintillating 36-point fourth quarter by Portland to hold on.
"I thought we did a good job limiting their easy baskets as much as possible," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "They got behind our defense a couple of times in the fourth quarter, but overall I thought that was an important part of the game for us."
The Clippers applied tough ball pressure on the Trail Blazers for three quarters, something that was notably absent from losses to San Antonio and Chicago last week. For the game, the Clippers logged 25 deflections -- an average effort for the team generally falls in the 15 range.
"We were in them the whole time," Griffin said. "We were on top of them, getting loose balls, getting steals, deflections. A deflection forces them to have to take a tough shot at the end of the shot clock. It's huge."
Portland is an efficient offensive club that opened the season with three straight wins, but it's not really a rhythm team in the classical sense. The Trail Blazers rely on a lot of pin-downs and pick-and-pop plays for LaMarcus Aldridge, with a few flex cuts sprinkled in to get their wings some open looks. The Clippers denied the Trail Blazers easy passes to Aldridge and forced 21 turnovers on the night -- much of the credit due to center Jordan. On the rare occasions when that intense pressure yielded penetration, the Clippers' back-line defenders were prompt to rotate. The Trail Blazers couldn't find anything in the half court and Clippers held a 69-52 lead after three quarters.
That's when the trouble began for Los Angeles, as Portland began to work away at the deficit. Nicolas Batum wreaked havoc off the ball (with a nifty baseline cut), as a spot-up shooter (two silky 3-pointers) and in transition (a breakaway slam off a deflection). Jamal Crawford scored 13 points on a combination of long jumpers and foul shots courtesy of his patented kick motion.
By the time Raymond Felton burned the Clippers on a couple of pick-and-rolls -- one resulting in an easy weak-side jumper by Aldridge, the other when he squirted to the hole past a backpedaling Jordan -- a laugher had morphed into a 5-point game and it grew only closer from there.
"In the fourth quarter when Jamal was getting loose, we did a poor job [defensively]," Griffin said. "We just have to bridge the gap and make it a four-quarter thing."
The win was anything but seamless, as the Clippers wobbled defensively and failed to find clean looks on the other end. Caron Butler, who scored 19 points on the night, missed a pair of free throws that would've extended the Clippers' lead to six points with 1:19 to play. On their next possession, the Clippers piddled around in the half court before Butler launched a contested 26-footer with the shot clock expiring. Aldridge then took an inbounds pass, and beat Jordan off the dribble on the right side with a bank shot to cut the lead to two.
Ultimately, it was Chris Paul who bailed the Clippers out on both ends. With 9.3 seconds remaining, Paul scored the final two of his 17 points and gave the Clippers a 92-88 lead. Paul split two defenders off a step-up screen from Jordan, then skated through the paint, finishing with a running bank shot from five feet.
Paul then drew the task of defending the much taller Crawford on the subsequent inbounds play. With Crawford desperately trying to find space along the perimeter, Paul pestered and harassed him. As Crawford elevated for a shot, Paul went with him and a jump ball was called.
"I know Jamal Crawford really well," Paul said. "He's an unbelievable scorer and can handle the ball like crazy."
Crawford is the all-time NBA leader in four-point plays. Was that a thought that drifted into Paul's mind?
"No question," Paul said. "I felt I just had to stay down, don't jump, and I got a deflection."
It wasn't a terribly artful win for the Clippers, who would've preferred to clamp down for 48 minutes rather than watch what they build for three quarters spring a leak. But governance is never pretty, no matter how glossy the city's marketing campaign might be.