Seconds earlier, as Chauncey Billups held the ball in the backcourt with the Clippers leading 88-83, the crowd at Staples Center rose simultaneously in affirmation. It's a very particular brand of sports standing ovation, one that screams, "Finally, it's in our grasp!" It occurs in ballparks and gyms when an opponent is down to its final out or facing the grim mathematical reality that there's probably not enough time. For the Clippers, it felt especially gratifying because they'd done it without Chris Paul, who was sidelined with a strained hamstring.
The sequence of events that follows reversed that fortune. Billups turns the corner courtesy of a screen by DeAndre Jordan. Billups then throws the ball across the lane, expecting his diving big man to be on the receiving end. The ball deflects off Shawn Marion's fingertips into the hands of Jason Kidd, who kicks it up ahead to Jason Terry for a 3-point PUJIT. After a botched pick-and-roll play, Jordan and Dirk Nowitzki each stake claim to a missed Billups fallaway, resulting in a jump ball. Jordan wins the tip and the ball eventually finds Billups' hands. Kidd makes a furious fight for the ball and Billups falls out of bounds. Billups later said he was pushed by Kidd, but the officials ruled that the ball went off Billups as he spilled across the sideline. Trailing 88-86, the Mavs set up a play.
Any team that's shadowed by doubt -- and that's virtually all of them -- has a flaw or two that critics, both honest and partisan, latch on to. For the Clippers, it's been the team's defensive shortcomings, particularly as a unit. They entered the night ranked 24th in defensive efficiency, but have the personnel to do much better. There's plenty of speed and agility on the back line, with smarts along the perimeter -- yet the breakdowns persist. The Clippers will successfully wall off the paint from a point guard moving past a ball screen, only to get crossed up when the possession swings to the other side of the court.
This inclination for mental snafus is on display at the game's biggest moment on Wednesday night, as it takes only seven seconds for the Clippers to commit a cataclysmic error (0:53 in the video above). The ball goes into Jason Terry, who moves left across the arc against Mo Williams. There's little mystery or misdirection on the floor. Dallas makes it clear from the instant Kidd inbounds the ball that its two big men -- Nowitzki and Ian Mahinmi -- will set a double-screen for Terry to return right. As the action comes, Williams intently looks left. He knows he's being taken out of the play and will now turn over custody of Terry to his teammate, Jordan.
That's clearly the plan, and for two dribbles or so, Jordan is on board. He shows high, getting his lanky body in front of Terry 30 feet from the basket. Out of nowhere, Jordan turns away from Terry and dashes toward the paint. Not backpedaling, but some sort of defensive rim run. Is Jordan under the impression he needs to recover onto Mahinmi, who now stands beneath the basket on the left side? Before Terry even gathers his dribble, Williams motions with both arms extended toward the space vacated by Jordan, as if to say, What are you thinking?!
That's the funny thing about defense. Ask 100 serious basketball observers who among Williams and Jordan is the better defensive player, and you'd likely get a firm majority for Jordan, the league's leading shot-blocker. Jordan put together a strong performance Wednesday night, getting underneath the Mavericks' defense for good looks along the baseline, scoring 19 points on 13 shots. He also blocked five of Dallas', but if not for the heroics that followed, he'd have been responsible for the Clippers' fatal mistake. Terry steps into a wide open 3-pointer and holds his follow-through as he watches the ball fall through the net, as Dallas takes a 89-88 lead with five seconds to play.
The Clippers have trouble inbounding the ball initially and have to wait for a replay confirmation to get a second crack. When they do, Billups must pass the ball in from the right corner. You don't see a lot of final possessions originate from this spot. Griffin and Williams situate themselves in a stack at the near elbow, with Jordan just a couple of inches in front of them, facing Billups. So Caron Butler will curl around this scrum and take the pass? Failing that, will Griffin pop out to receive it? And if so, what happens then?
The play transpires at 1:02 in the video above. Marion stays with Butler around the curl, denying him a pass. The ball goes into Griffin, who pops out toward the sideline. Billups then runs toward Griffin. Kidd, who has been guarding the inbound pass, inexplicably freezes for a split-second. He first identifies the location of the ball -- in Griffin's hands. Kidd then realizes that when he turned his attention toward Griffin for maybe half a second, Billups -- his assignment -- has cut to a spot beyond the arc. Given the broad context but thin margins, Kidd might as well be a mile away from Billups.
Vinny Del Negro's account:
There are a few options on the play. First, I thought Caron did a nice job curling, and it opened up Blake popping back with the screen. I thought Blake made a nice decision in terms of the space that was available for Chauncey to get his shot off.
There were two different options on the play -- a handoff if I was freed up, or Blake [Griffin] was going to fake a handoff and turn and make his own play. He made a great read and I made the shot. ... I was a little surprised I was that open. I actually thought that [Griffin] faking it to me and both guys running to me in that instance would be the right play -- then [Griffin] going to make a play. But I got some separation. Blake made a great play with the handoff.
It was just kind of a "read" play. Jason [Kidd] was trailing Chauncey, so I just gave it to him and Chauncey did what he does. ... There were definitely multiple options and that was the one that stuck out immediately. You have a guy like that with two or three feet on a defender, you give it to him and he didn't disappoint.
This set isn't Popovichian in design. Though it doesn't require a lot of complicated execution, Billups and Griffin run the sequence masterfully, the former for his marksmanship and the latter for his decision making. Griffin could've chosen to put the ball on the floor and try to muscle his way past Mahinmi to the rim, where he'd meet Marion. Had Griffin chosen that route, he would've also had an open Butler all alone on the left side of the perimeter.
But Billups had the space and the pedigree. As Griffin said, a squeaky-clean look for Chauncey Billups immediately sticks out.