Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Are the Clippers Playoff Chokers?

Twice in this tight series with the Spurs, the Clippers have been on the offensive end with a chance to win the game with a score. In the first instance in Game 2, Chris Paul had a good look at a jumper to win and give the Clippers a 2-0 series lead but instead missed and the teams headed to overtime, where Blake had several turnovers and the Clips lost by four (111-107). Last night, after blowing two leads, they had a chance to end the game and go up 3-2 for the series. The Clippers inbounded the ball down a point with 6 seconds to play. The ball came to Blake, who drove to the hoop and sent a floater that bounced around the rim, before DeAndre Jordan tapped it in while it was still in the cylinder, to take away the go ahead score. Two plays that will probably define another playoff failure, but what do they tell us about the spine of the team?

Blake Griffin was 1 of 9 last night in the fourth quarter with a couple of turnovers and has now shot just 4 of 21 in the fourth quarter in the series as the Clippers blew their second lead of the night. He had a shot to tie it with 58 second left, but got blocked by Duncan, when he drove into three Spurs rather than take a ten footer, and somehow lost the ball as it came right back to him. Crawford missed a three that would have evened things up and then there was the chance to win it with 4.9 seconds left (though it might well have fallen in without DE AndrĂ©’s inference). The Clippers as a team missed 16 free throws and were terrible from behind the arc (1 for 14), arguably blowing a chance to blow the game open toward the end of the first quarter when they allowed the Spurs to go on a 22-3 run. And poor defending and decision-making at key points of the game also played a role, as when Blake snatched a ball going out of bounds and then threw it right to Duncan, ultimately resulting in two points for the Spurs.

So are the Clippers chokers? Chris Paul has been up and down in the series, but has had only one off night (Game 3). He brought the Clippers back in the fourth quarter and one wonders why he wasn’t the man with the ball in his hand at the end, particularly after the poor fourth quarter from Griffin – though we should remember that he too had a chance to win a game with a last second shot. Crawford had an open three that would have tied things and blew it. DeAndre Jordan continued to struggle at the free throw line, as the hack-a-Jordan strategy helped the Spurs take a lead. And, after making a couple of clutch shots, J. J. Reddick fouled out, though it might have been on a questionable call. In fact, as Doc Rivers decried last night, the refereeing has been pretty one-sided in a very tight series. In this game, we could mention an inexplicable technical foul on Chris Paul with under 5 minutes to go to give the Spurs an extra point (after what looked like an over the back on Griffin going for the rebound) and Paul simply throwing the ball to the side ref. So both those calls mattered, as did a rather absurd foul call against Tony Parker when he appeared to have his right arm around the defender and pushing off of him. I’m not saying the refereeing decided the game, but it is hard to ignore the relatively one-sided nature of all of the close calls across the five games and the late ones in Game 5 that gave the Spurs an advantage they still almost relinquished but for the tip of DeAndre Jordan’s index finger. On the other hand, a few more free throws, a better fourth quarter from Blake and one or two more threes and the Clippers would be up 3-2 and probably on their way to winning this series.

So back to the question: are the Clippers chokers? I’m not just talking about this tough first round matchup alone but the past four years, with losses to the Spurs in the Conference Semifinals (0-4) in 2011-12, the Grizzlies in the first Round (4-2, after winning the first two) the next year, the Thunder in the Conference Semis 4-2 last year (after winning Game 1) and now a likely loss to the Spurs in the First Round. And based on that data set, it's hard to argue the answer is not yes. Chris Paul is one of the best point guards in the game, but will not be called one of the greatest in history unless he wins a title. Blake Griffin has improved every year since he entered the league, but needs to now add the will to win, as the Spurs have shown for most of the Duncan era. Two games to change the narrative, let's see if the Clippers can embark on a new epoch. 

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