Clippers still learning to finish games
Suddenly, the hottest team in Los Angeles is beginning to fizzle down the stretch
LOS ANGELES -- The image stuck with Blake Griffin for days.
Kevin Love, his arms outstretched, gazing up at the scoreboard as his teammates swarmed him following his buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Minnesota Timberwolves a 101-98 win over the Los Angeles Clippers last month.
Of all the heartbreaking losses the Clippers suffered during a relatively successful first half of the season, that loss stuck with Griffin and the Clippers the longest. It was the first game the Clippers had essentially given away and was the only loss the team suffered at home during a one-month stretch in which it left Staples Center only three times.
There would be no dramatic finishes or lasting images pierced into the minds of Griffin and his teammates Tuesday night. In fact, Love didn't even enter the game in the fourth quarter; he watched the final seconds tick down from the bench as the Timberwolves beat the Clippers 109-97.
Griffin did his best early in the game to make sure the Clippers wouldn't be in position to squander another game late. He had 18 points and five rebounds in the first quarter, and finished with 30 points and seven rebounds as he went up against Love, who finished with a season-low 10 points and seven rebounds. None of those numbers mattered in the end, as the Timberwolves' bench obliterated the Clippers' bench 72-11 and ran away with the game in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Clippers 36-21.
"They just hit tough shots, I don't think we played terrible defense, they just hit shots," Griffin said. "We just kind of get up and give away the lead. I don't know how many times we gave away the lead. We have to pull it out."
Coming into the game, the focus was on the Clippers' duo of Griffin and Chris Paul going up against the Timberwolves' duo of Love and Ricky Rubio, but it was Minnesota's bench tandem of Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley, who combined for 54 points, that was the difference in the game. In fact Williams and Beasely combined for more fourth-quarter points (26) than the Clippers' entire team (21).
"Between Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley, they were unbelievable," Griffin said. "Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams hit tough shots, and they hit a lot of them in a row."
The Clippers are a different team now than they were when they last lost to Minnesota a month ago. Paul and Caron Butler were injured, Chauncey Billups was healthy, and Kenyon Martin was in China, trying to figure out a way back to the NBA. The biggest difference with the team outside of roster moves between then and now, however, was supposed to be the Clippers' ability to close out games.
It was a staple of this team in late January and into February. The Clippers had come back from double-digit deficits to win six times, including an 18-point deficit at Portland this month. It was a refreshing change for the Clippers, who had found a variety of ways to squander double-digit leads in the past and simply give up after falling behind by double digits.
Suddenly these new-look Clippers, who were supposed to make everyone forget about the past, have drawn comparisons to the Clippers of old in three of their past four losses, to San Antonio, Golden State and Minnesota. All three games were blown in the fourth quarter due to costly errors and horrendous defensive play down the stretch. What was once an aberration is beginning to look like a scary trend for the Clippers as they go on the road for the next six games and play 20 games in 31 days in March.
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After the game, even Clippers owner Donald Sterling had to shake his head as he looked up at the final stats from Tuesday's game in the press room. He's seen his fair share of meltdowns in the past but he usually didn't have to back one of the highest payrolls in the league to see his team disappoint him.
"Sometimes it comes with experience and enduring these situations more than one time," Paul said. "That's something we got to learn, how to put teams away."
Turning points in a season aren't truly known until a season is over and you can look back and reflect on every significant moment, but the Clippers' loss to Minnesota on Tuesday after similar late-game collapses to San Antonio and Golden State could prove to be a bad omen for the Clippers heading into one of the toughest stretches of games any team will have to endure this season.
"This is the first one after the break," Paul said. "If this happens in Sacramento and the next game, then I have something to worry about. It's something that can be corrected. ... I'm not panicking."
It was a sentiment echoed by Griffin before he left Staples Center for a 10-day road trip that will go a long way in deciding whether the Clippers' past three losses were simply an aberration or the start of something far worse.
"We've been in these situations before, and we've played our way out of it," Griffin said. "This isn't the end of the world. We have some games coming up where we can redeem ourselves."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.