If you want to know why the Los Angeles Clippers — a popular preseason pick to win the championship — are dropping winnable games and struggling to stay above .500, go back and watch third quarter of their 105-89 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night.
It was as if every problem the Clippers (5-4) had had this season compounded into one dreadful quarter, exposing flaw after flaw.
Poor perimeter defense? Check. An inability to protect the rim? You bet. Overreliance on Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford offensively? Of course.
The undermanned Bulls — playing without their top two offensive options, Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol — put on a clinic on both ends of the floor, scoring 31 points on 57.1 percent shooting and holding the Clippers to just 14 points on 29.4 percent shooting.
Chicago has been one of the league’s top two or three defensive teams for a half-decade, so their dominance on that end was no surprise. But their offense, which typically struggles without Rose, became Spurs-like, whipping the ball side-to-side with great spacing, and unraveled the Clippers’ defense at its seams.
As the Clippers were quick to point out, though, the game’s momentum dramatically shifted right before intermission, when the Bulls cut the Clips’ 14-point lead to just two during the final 3:24. The third-quarter disaster was almost inevitable after that point.
"I don’t remember a big turn like that for a while since I have been in the league," Paul said. "It happened quick. We were up 14 and could have been up 20 and [the Bulls] came back and cut it to two at halftime."
Rivers added: "I thought the way we ended right before halftime is what changed the game. It gave them hope, and they felt like they had a shot to win the game. After the half, Chicago was the tougher team."
Six Bulls scored more than their season average, including dominant performances from Jimmy Butler (22 points) and Taj Gibson (20). Griffin finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists, Jordan had another double-double with 10 points and 17 rebounds, and Paul added 12 points and 7 assists.
Here are five takeaways from Monday’s game:
No place like home, right?
The Clippers have traditionally lacked an intimidating home-court presence, and any time an opponent with a large fan base — think Lakers, Bulls, Knicks and Celtics — comes to town, the crowd tends to be split 50/50 in terms of cheering and team gear. Tonight, however, felt like a Bulls home game. The sea of red was mainly Bulls red, and the Chicago fans were much, much louder than the Clippers fans. It was discouraging to see and hear. "Tonight somewhat felt like a road game," Paul said. "It was loud in there," Griffin added, "and loud in the wrong way."
The buzzword of the Clippers’ post-game press conference was "trust." The team claimed they gave up their 14-point lead because they stopping trusting their offensive system, and then that lack of trust leaked over into the defensive end, making a mess of the game. There seems to be something bigger at play here — maybe a locker-room rift, or philosophical differences in the game plan — as the personnel from last year is nearly identical, yet the product is inexplicably worse. The offense doesn’t have the same pop, and the defense isn’t on a string. It doesn’t show up in the box score, but a lack of trust can undo any team.
The wrong end of the measuring stick
The Clippers’ last five games were against a playoff-caliber team (Phoenix) and four championship contenders (Golden State, Portland, San Antonio and Chicago), and the Clips managed a subpar 2-3 record. To make matters worse, four of the games were at home. The Warriors loss was understandable, but the Spurs and Bulls games were winnable. This was an ideal stretch for the Clippers to go 3-2 or 4-1 and establish their place in the hierarchy of the league’s elite, but all these games did was cause more doubt and uncertainty about the team’s status.
The daunting road ahead
What better way to break out of a funk than a seven-game road trip, right? "I do like going on the road," Rivers said. "I think it is an opportunity to find yourself." Teams tend to bond on long road trips early in the season, and perhaps this trip can help spark the cohesion the Clippers have so visibly lacked. The Clips don’t face a murderer’s row of competition — Orlando, Miami, Memphis, Charlotte, Detroit, Houston and Utah — and should realistically go 5-2 on the trip. Of course, road trips aren’t always beneficial, and can dig the Clippers in an even bigger hole. "You can also lose yourself on the road," Rivers said. "So we’ll see."
Over the course of a 13-2 bench-led run midway through the second quarter, Jamal Crawford (24 points, 5 assists) and Spencer Hawes (8 points) — good friends and Seattle natives — demonstrated how important their play is to the team’s success. Crawford abused Bulls defenders with his hypnotic crossover and quick-triggered jumper, connecting on a couple and-1s and riling up the crowd. Once he got going, he used the defensive attention he drew to create two open 3-pointers for Hawes out of high pick-and-rolls sets. The Clips’ second unit is short on ball-handlers and scorers, so whenever these two can have big nights, respectively, it adds another dimension to L.A.’s offense.