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Clippers Living Dangerously

This could have easily been a story about one of the most demoralizing playoff losses in Clippers history. Instead, after nearly squandering a six-point lead in the last 23 seconds, and watching Rudy Gay’s last-second shot just miss the mark, the Clippers take an improbable 2-1 lead into Game 4, in a series they could easily be trailing 3-0.

It could have been a story about how an inexperienced playoff team’s dreadful free-throw shooting snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead, it’s a story about a resilient team that answered the Grizzlies’ physical challenge in Game 2 and beat them at their own game, seizing control in the final four minutes and hanging on for dear life at the end.

 “That’s how we planned it, a relieved Chris Paul deadpanned after the game, as if the Clippers really planned on missing five of their last six free throws and nearly giving every one of their 19,000-plus fans a heart attack in the process.

This was the first home Clipper playoff game since the magical year of 2006, when Sam Cassell and Elton Brand came within a game of leading the Clippers into the Western Conference Finals. That group was never a contender again, but this team – assuming the Clippers can convince Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to stay – has a much brighter future.

The big question pre-game was the status of Caron Butler, who sustained a broken left hand in Game 2. Vinny Del Negro played his cards close to the vest, claiming he wasn’t sure whether Butler would play. No one believed him, of course, and Del Negro politely declined a reporter’s invite to swear on a stack of Bibles.

In fact, Butler was in the starting lineup, and while he wasn’t a factor, his teammates took notice. “If he can fight with one broken hand, what can the rest of us do?" said Paul.

The second big question was whether the Clippers would step up physically. Reggie Evans bluntly said after Game 2 that the Clippers had been “punked around” in Game 2. He didn’t want to revisit those comments before Game 3, saying only that his team would be ready to answer the bell for Game 3.

Getting dressed in the Grizzlies' locker room, Zach Randolph dismissed any ideas that his teammates were trying to send a message in Game 2. 

“Playing physical, it’s just the way we play,” he said. “If you ain’t a physical team, you’re not going to start being one today.” He singled out Reggie Evans as the one physical Clipper who could “install it in some other guys.” 

Nearby, Marc Gasol added that “It’s going to be a battle of wills.”

Once the game started, the Clippers more than answered the bell. Energized by 19,000 screaming fans in red Clipper Nation shirts, they threw their weight and bodies around, pummeled the Grizzlies inside, and refused to back down from the shoves, elbows and knockdowns that is the Grizzlies blue-collar style of play.

“They took away our physical game,” said Rudy Gay afterwards.  “They imposed their will on us."

Once again Evans, one of the unlikely bench heroes of the Game 1 comeback, was a vital contributor. He got a rousing hand from the crowd when he checked in late in the first quarter, and immediately made his presence felt by stealing a pass, then getting a rebound. For the game, Evans nabbed 11 rebounds, including two offensive rebounds off missed free throws, in in a hard fought 24 minutes.

The Clippers’ other physical player, Blake Griffin, still leads the league in non-calls. At one point, Griffin went up for a jam, and even with Randolph’s arms draped around his mid-section, could not get a foul call. Griffin got frustrated, and though he got an early technical, he also made the signature play of the game at the end of the first half, stealing an inbounds pass and racing 15 feet for a monster dunk that just beat the halftime buzzer.

After a 25-14 third quarter, the Grizzlies seemed poised to regain control of the series, but this is also a team that blew a 24-point lead in the last nine minutes of Game 1. With the Clippers defense tightening, the Grizzlies went 7:10 of the fourth quarter without a field goal, and then – as he has done all season – it was Chris Paul time. His 16-footer gave the Clippers an 82-80 lead, then he helped cause a turnover. The capper came on the ensuing play, when Paul beat OJ Mayo cutting left across the lane, then threaded a gorgeous bounce pass between two big men to w wide-open Griffin, waiting for the dunk.

"Paul has done it all year and his whole career," Vinny Del Negro said. "When the game is on the line, he is as good as there is in the game."

"I just walked around until he passed it," Griffin said of the play later, as the pressroom erupted in laughter.  

Said Paul: "I got into the lane, saw the two guys looking at me and I saw Blake -- he made the 'Blake Face,'" Paul said.  Paul then turned to his young son, and asked him to demonstrate the face, which the boy did with stunning likeness, bringing down the house.

Yes, it was that kind of day for the Clippers, but it came so very close to being disastrous. Leading 86-80, the Clippers watch Gay hit a three-point bomb.  Eric Bledsoe then made one free throw to push the lead to 4, but missed the second. Evans was there for the crucial rebound, was fouled – and missed both shots. Gay hit another three, and suddenly it was 87-86, and when the Clippers suddenly forgot how to inbound the ball, they were forced to use their last timeout. 

When they got it in, Bledsoe was fouled, and incredibly, missed both shots. (For the game, the Clippers were an epic fail 13-30 from the line). With no timeouts, the Grizzlies came flying downcourt with six seconds left. Gay had a good look at a 25-footer, but Randy Foye got in his face, enough to make Gay double-clutch and throw his shot off, and the Clippers survived.

After the game, even Paul was stunned by the stat sheet.

"We missed 17 free throws?" he said. "We did? It shows how much fight we have. It's unacceptable."

On paper, it seems impossible that the Clippers pulled this off. Their 43.3 free-throw percentage was the worst for any team in a single game in NBA playoff history. And the Grizzlies set a dubious record as well, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: despite making 17 more free throws than the Clippers, they still lost. Since the inception of the shot-clock in the 1954-55 season, no team had outshot its opponent from the free throw line by such an extreme margin in the postseason yet still failed to win the game.

In the end, the Clippers got the defensive stops when they needed it most, and the growing chemistry between Paul and Griffin should make them more dangerous as the playoffs go deeper. But it’d be a shame to see the Clippers waste a promising season over something as fundamental as making a free throw.

“We have to find a way,” said Del Negro, “to make them at the end of games.”

Lob City Receives Reality Check

Lob City, population 19,426, arrived at Staples Center on Friday night, a sellout crowd oohing and aahing over the most exciting Clippers lineup in franchise history. But for all the Blake Griffin jams, Chris Paul no-looks, and DeAndre Jordan blocks, this team is still a work in progress – and will be all season. 

The litmus tests have come fast and furious for the Clippers in this opening week, and so far, they’ve failed both. At least Friday night’s 114-101 loss to the Bulls was an honorable failure, after Wednesday’s 115-90 blow out in San Antonio. While the Bulls, and their reigning MVP Derrick Rose, looked like a team in midseason form, the Clippers looked like they could use another six weeks of training camp.  

Rose put on a dominating performance – “one of the greatest I’ve ever seen,” said Joakim Noah afterwards – scoring 29 points handing out 16 assists, and carving up the Clippers defense six ways to Sunday. 

Paul gamely did his part, with 15 points and 14 assists, and Griffin muscled his way to 34 points and 13 boards, but there’s no shame in saying the Clippers are just not at an elite level yet.  They gave up 50% shooting against the Spurs and Bulls, and have been outrebounded in all three games.

Before the game, coach Vinny Del Negro lamented his team’s deficiencies.

“Our defense and our rebounding are obviously an issue,” he said.  “We’re giving up too many points right now."

Asked about Lob City, Del Negro said “Highlight lobs are great, if it’s the right basketball play.” Otherwise, he said, “I’d rather see ‘Win’ City.”

The city of Los Angeles is ready to embrace them. In a year when the Lakers have appeared to regress, it’s hip to be Clip. Fans entering Staples Center from the north side could see giant murals of Griffin, Paul, and Jordan adorning the nearby Figueroa Hotel. Inside Staples, hip-hop music blared, hazy smoke filled the air, and fans held red giveaway T-shirts that said, “Game on”. 

Both Griffin and Paul addressed the crowd before the game, Paul promising “a lot of fun”, and Griffin promising to try and “make this a season you won’t forget.”

The P.A. announcer exhorted the crowd to its feet for the opening tip, and what they got was an unforgettable first two minutes: Griffin buckling Noah’s knees with a fake, and driving around him for a two-handed dunk; Griffin slipping past Carlos Boozer for a layup; Mo Williams, staring in place of the injured Chauncey Billups (strained groin), hitting a three from the corner. 7-0 Clips, crowd roaring, time-out, Bulls.

That was as good as it got for the Clippers, who couldn’t keep up with Rose’s dribble penetration and an array of shooters – Noah, (19 points), Luol Deng (19 ), and Richard Hamilton (16) spreading the floor and beating the Clippers on backside cuts.  While the Clippers gave Lob City plenty to cheer out, with thunderous dunks by Griffin and Jordan off adroit passes from Paul – the more aggressive Bulls shot 34 free throws to the Clippers’ 20, and got Jordan into early foul trouble.   The Clippers had flash; the Bulls had fundamentals.  The much-heralded duel between Rose and Paul was won decisively by Rose, who is now 5-0 vs. Paul-led teams.

Even so, the Clippers were within three at 87-84 early in the fourth, when a 16-4 Bulls run essentially sealed it, punctuated by two long threes from Rose and super sub Kyle Korver. By the time Rose finished things off with a gorgeous feed down low to Noah and a 110-95 lead, shouts of “MVP!” were heard from a partisan section of Bulls fans.

“Derrick is just a handful and we all know that," said Del Negro, who knows Rose all too well, having coached him in his first two seasons with Chicago. "I didn't think we ganged up on him enough. He got too many free throws, but he also hit some tough shots in the fourth quarter, stepping behind the line and hitting some 3s. And when he does that, it puts a lot more pressure on you."

"We were up to the challenge, and we were capable (of winning)," a dejected Griffin said. "But we've got 63 more, so we'll be all right. We're going to win games, but we've got to get better defensively.”

But it was Jordan who put things in proper perspective. “They’ve been together four, five years,” he said of the Bulls. “We’ve been together 14 days.”

Does Kobe Really Want To Be Traded?

Call me crazy, but I think Kobe Bryant?s about to have the year of his life.  

And if he does, he can thank Jerry Buss.

All Buss did was call his whiny, disrespectful superstar on his ? crap.

After quietly absorbing a summer of tantrums and immature behavior from a franchise player he?d been unflinchingly loyal to, Buss finally had enough.  Shocking long-time Lakers' watchers, and a room full of media at the Lakers? training camp in Honolulu, Buss declared that Bryant was no longer untouchable, strongly intimating that if the right deal came along, he could be gone this season.

To an outsider, this hardly qualified as surprising news, since Bryant?s been begging for months now to be put out of his Lakers' misery.

To those on the inside, Buss?s words were stunning.  Never had he so much as hinted at a willingness to move his most revered employee.  Perhaps Buss could no longer endure another slight.  Perhaps he was dismayed by Kevin Garnett?s recent comments about how he?d been scared off by the Lakers? front office problems.  Problems magnified by Bryant?s outbursts.

You?d think that Bryant might have greeted Buss?s comments with a huge sigh of relief, but all he offered was silence. Which leads me to wonder how serious he was about being traded in the first place.  Was all this just the exaggerated diva demands of a frustrated athlete? He?d used sports radio as his personal pulpit, called Buss a liar, and famously said, ?I?ll go play on Pluto? rather than return for another season alongside Bynum, Odom & co.

Then, as abruptly as it started, the histrionics ceased. The trade demands stopped.  Bryant dutifully showed up for camp figuring bygones were bygones.

What he didn?t count on was Buss, an avid poker player, calling his bluff.   Raising the pot.. Playing the ?challenge Kobe? hand.

For years Bryant has gotten away with murder.  He?s held all the cards; been the pampered, favorite son allowed to rum amuck through the organization like a spoiled  child berating his helpless parents.  The Lakers have indulged his legal problems, his blow-ups at teammates, his rants about the incompetence of the front office, and his accusations of the team?s broken promises to build a championship contender around him (not all of which are unfair).

Still, Buss stood by him at every turn.  In 2004, with the Kobe-Shaq feud heating up, Buss told ESPN that Bryant ?will be a Laker for life? and traded Shaq five months later.  When the whispers began that Kobe had forced Shaq out, it was Buss who came to his defense, saying that Shaq had become a commodity he couldn?t afford.

In the summer of 2004, Buss?s public message to Bryant, then considering a move to the Clippers, was, ?Stay with the people who love you.?

A year later, with the Kobe love-fest in full bloom, Buss said, ?I really think somebody would have to give me their franchise, their arena and the city in order to get him.?

Now, it appears that somebody only need give him the right combination of players.

Said Buss to the media, ?You can?t keep too many loyalties? Bryant looks at it the same way I look at it.?  In other words ? nothing personal.  Just business.  

After what Kobe has put the organization through, you couldn?t blame Buss for reaching his breaking point and saying what many have privately wished he?d said earlier.

Yet his timing was odd, considering that on October 2 ?the day before the Lakers flew to Honolulu for the start of camp ? Kobe and the Lakers put on their best united front, with Bryant saying all the right things about putting the past behind him and looking forward to a fresh start. Or, as he told the Los Angeles Times, ?The most important thing is that I want to bring a title back to L.A.?

He?d seemingly patched things up with Andrew Bynum, who he derided in a now-infamous off-the-cuff parking lot video and even complimented the front office for their valiant effort at acquiring Garnett.  

It may not have been the most convincing show of unity ? Bryant had already burned too many bridges over the summer and was only in uniform because, like an employee under contract to a large corporation, he had no choice ? but it was a politically correct show.

Less than ten days later, Buss shattered whatever illusions anyone had that the Lakers? summer of discontent was behind them.

Bryant has yet to address the notion he could be traded.  Early reports out of training camp, however, suggest that he?s becoming the facilitator the Lakers have long wanted  him to be.  Coincidence?  On a team with more plot twists than a Spanish telenovela, probably not.

Bryant, the most ferocious competitor in the NBA, also has a championship-caliber ego.  Now that his boss has called him, in so many words, expendable, I can see the old fire returning to Bryant?s eyes, the kind of fire he exhibited with Team USA over the summer, ruthlessly shutting down Leandro Barbosa in the game against Brazil.

Could it be that Bryant realizes how good he has it being king of L.A. and is now determined to prove that no owner in his right mind would want to trade him?

Reached by email, ESPN?s Ric Bucher, a long-time Bryant confidant who over the summer predicted that Bryant would never wear a Lakers' uniform again, had a more measured response.

?I believe he's feeling his basketball mortality for the first time,? Bucher wrote. ?He's not willing to risk his assets -- a restored image after the Colorado incident and $19.5 million in salary -- to force the Lakers to move him.?

And he may not want to go down in history as the man who forced Jerry Buss to trade him.  Which is why, if the Lakers get off to a good start and Bryant has the year of his life, Buss will look like a poker-faced genius.

Lakers Best Shot Isn?t Enough

About that Lakers-Clippers series? Expect it to go the way of so many anticipated Hollywood projects: into turnaround. Maybe the Lakers bought into their own hype. Maybe they took Kobe Bryant?s Game 4 heroics for granted, figuring he?d be there to save them at the end once more.

Bring On The Lakers

By winning Game 5, the Clippers will remain in Los Angeles for what comedian Billy Crystal has already dubbed ?The Hallway Series? against the Lakers, a series that promises to polarize the city like no other. That?s assuming the Lakers can close out the Phoenix Suns, which few Clippers seemed to doubt they would do.

Frazier And Monroe They Ain?t

With the Steve Francis trade, Isiah Thomas is reaching back further than he realizes, 33 years in fact, when the Knicks were led by the most illustrious backcourt ever to grace the Garden floor: Walt (Clyde) Frazier and Earl (The Pearl) Monroe. Unfortunately, the comparisons end there."

Can Pistons Better The Bulls?

The likelihood is, it won?t happen. But after 27 games, the Detroit Pistons are on a pace to tie or break the Chicago Bulls 72-10 record, set during their championship season of 1996. In fact, they have the same record the Bulls had on the same date in ?96: 24-3.

Clips Are Best In the West After Routing Bucks

It?s almost as hard to believe as the Red Sox and White Sox winning the World Series in back-to-back years. The Clippers ? along with the San Antonio Spurs - are on top of the West. Granted, the season is a mere eight games old, but after dismantling the Milwaukee Bucks, 109-85, the Clippers, at 6-2, are off to the best start in the history of the franchise.

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