ATLANTA – As the Kiss Cam made its way around Philips Arena to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” it came to a rest along the Clippers’ bench.
Looking up, with sheepish smiles, were DeAndre Jordan and Nick Young, two of the more good-humored Clippers. So Jordan wrapped his arm around Young, pulled him close and planted a kiss on top of his head.
It wasn’t the only thing they kissed off Tuesday.
The Clippers, with a 109-102 loss to the Hawks, kissed goodbye any chance of catching the Lakers for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and a more comfortable path in the playoffs. And if they lose at New York in their regular-season finale Wednesday, they may kiss goodbye to homecourt advantage in their first-round series against Memphis.
It was hard to say that the Clippers didn’t get what they deserved here.
That was certainly the viewpoint of Coach Vinny Del Negro, who was seething about an effort that in many ways was lackadaisical.
“From the start, I didn’t think we were hungry, I didn’t think we were physical, I don’t think we played hard enough,” said Del Negro, who called a timeout barely three minutes into the game after the Hawks hit back-to-back 3-pointers after offensive rebounds.
Del Negro was just getting warmed up. When it was suggested that he did not seem happy, his speech became more clipped, the agitation in his voice clear.
“I’m not happy because of the effort, the energy,” he said. “You’ve got to compete, you’ve got to fight, you know what I mean? I can live with if you go out there and you get after it and you foul out. You’ve got to fight. At this stage of the season, man, everyone’s fighting for something. You’ve got to go out there and want it. You’ve got to be angry, pissed off, have an edge. I thought they moved the ball where they wanted to, they got post ups, we weren’t sprinting back in transition, just stuff that was effort stuff that pisses me off to be honest with you.”
Asked how he might inspire a better effort against the Knicks, Del Negro said: “I’m going to kick ’em in the ass. How ’bout that?”
And with that he went back into his office.
If a boot in their behind isn’t enough to inspire the Clippers, perhaps this should: if the Clippers lose to the Knicks and Memphis beats Dwight Howard-less Orlando at home Thursday, the Clippers could find themselves flying all the way back to Memphis for Game 1 (either Saturday or Sunday) within 24 hours of returning from New York.
The Clippers had been considering staying in New York if they didn’t know whether they would be home for the series opener, but a team spokesman said those plans were scrapped.
The Clippers, who have three starters who have never been to the playoffs, will need every advantage they can get against the veteran Grizzlies, who upset top-seeded San Antonio in the first round last year and took Oklahoma City to a seventh game.
“That’s our first playoff game tomorrow,” said Mo Williams, one of only two Clippers who has reached a conference final. “It’s a must win for us.”
It is not hard to find the root of the Clippers’ troubles on Tuesday. Six of their last seven victories had been the result of double-digit comebacks. While their resiliency is admirable, their performance had the look of: don’t worry, we’ll get them at the end.
That’s what they did Sunday, when they trailed New Orleans by 13 in the fourth quarter. So when they found themselves down by 13 to start the fourth quarter, no problem, right?
“New Orleans is a bad team that was sitting there for us to make a run,” said Randy Foye, contrasting the Hornets with the Hawks, who are in the same position as the Clippers – clinging to homecourt advantage in the first round. “This is a playoff team. The effort wasn’t there. We should have played a little defense, rebounded a little bit and we would have been all right.”
Blake Griffin and Chris Paul nearly made it all right by themselves. Griffin had his best shooting game of the season, hitting 17 of 23 shots – many of them perimeter jumpers, and finished with 36 points. Paul had 34 and suffered a strained groin but said he will play against the Knicks.
Griffin’s putback dunk of Paul’s driving layup with 1:03 left pulled the Clippers within 100-96. But Joe Johnson, hemmed in on the sideline by Williams, banked in a 30-footer with the shotclock expiring and that was that.
“I guess I can’t get mad,” said Williams, who made a similar shot a week ago in a narrow win over Denver. “When he released it, I said it’s got a chance. It’s alost like when you’re shooting half-court shots at the end of the quarter. When it goes up, you always say one thing – it’s got a chance.”
If those are the breaks that even out over the course of a season, this loss may have been an accounting of another sort.
“Bad habits catch up with you,” Kenyon Martin said. “They caught up with us tonight.”