Reporting from New York – This one didn’t totally hinge on Rasual Butler’s three-point attempt banging off the front of the rim with about a second remaining.
Nor did it turn on the offensive foul called on Al Thornton with 15 seconds remaining, which angered him on the court and still had him seething in the locker room about a half an hour afterward.
No, the way to this latest Clippers’ collapse — a blown lead of 20 points — was paved long before those last-second events in what turned out to be a 95-91 victory by the Knicks on Friday.
Try the third quarter.
When it started, the Clippers led by 16 points. By the time the dust cleared, David Lee managed to get jump-started, the Clippers’ pick-and-roll coverage all but evaporated and some of the disgruntled Madison Square Garden crowd quit grousing about missing former Knick and Clipper Marcus Camby.
It was 72-72 after three.
If this wasn’t quite a copy of the Clippers’ well-chronicled earlier collapse against the Raptors — then, it was a 22-point blown lead — well, this version was in the same chapter.
Unlike the Toronto game, though, the Clippers kept it close in the fourth and were trailing by one when the foul was called on Thornton and 93-91 when Baron Davis kicked it back to Butler.
“I just missed it. I wish I could get it again but I can’t,” said Butler, who made five three-pointers against Minnesota on Wednesday. “Got a good look. I thought it was good too. I was waiting for the opportunity. I wanted the opportunity.
“I didn’t come through this time.”
That the Clippers (11-14) managed to stay that close so late was surprising. Chris Kaman had 20 points but only four in the second half, and Davis was seven for 17 from the field, finishing with 19 points.
“We didn’t deserve to win this game,” Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy said. “We almost got lucky.”
The concept of a third-quarter walkabout was even addressed at halftime.
“We came out and we were terrible in the third quarter,” Dunleavy said. “We talked about coming out in the first six minutes of the third quarter, playing with the energy and trying to put these guys away early and all of a sudden we came out lackadaisical, unfocused.”
Lee had 17 of his 25 points in the second half, including a tip-in to give the Knicks a 92-91 lead, and the Clippers were unable to contain Chris Duhon in the lane. Duhon gave Eric Gordon, in particular, fits in the second half.
Their pick-and-roll coverage was not an issue in the first half.
“Everything was on in the first half, scoring, defense,” said Gordon, who had 14 points. “There are no excuses for how we let the game get out of our hands.”
Gordon and Thornton combined for eight turnovers, and Gordon was shaking his head at an especially blatant late miscue when his pass went right into the hands of the Knicks’ Al Harrington.
“I saw Camby wide open. Dumb pass,” Gordon said. “But it should have never got to any situation where it came down to crunch time.”
Thornton agreed, saying: “This should have been an easy win for us. We came out, and the third quarter, man, told it all.”
Blake Griffin’s next series of tests could come before the Clippers return home from this long trip, Dunleavy said. The timetable for his return largely will be determined by those exams. Griffin suffered a stress fracture of his left kneecap in the preseason.