Clippers play Lakers tonight after loss to Hawks

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Photo above: L.A. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan dunks for two points, from a lob by power forward Blake Griffin. (YouTube)

Monday the Los Angeles Clippers faced their biggest challenge of the season. The high-flying Atlanta Hawks came to Staples Center for a night of high-powered basketball. They were 25-8, the second best record in the NBA. The Hawks haven’t had an “easy” schedule, they have beat the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, and these Clippers just two weeks ago. And Saturday they took one from the Portland Trailblazers.

Glen “Big Baby” Davis during warm-ups.
Glen “Big Baby” Davis during warm-ups.

On the other hand, the Clippers have been up and down since December 1. They were coming off a three game win streak on the road so they should have been be at their best Monday Night.

The Clippers came out playing well, staying ahead of the Hawks through the first half. In the first three minutes of the game the Clippers jumped out to an 11 to two lead, forcing the Hawks to take an early time out.

But the Hawks didn’t get their record by letting games slip away. That nine point lead was the best the Clippers would do and for the rest of the game. Atlanta fought back to stay competitive and give themselves a chance to win.

It’s not a big mystery as to why the Clippers are so inconsistent right now. In tonight’s game they lost their focus and energy at the end of the third quarter and then in the fourth Atlanta ran away with the game.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers has mentioned it several times this season: the team has trouble closing out games. Just looking at the stats for this game it looks like the Clippers should have won. More players scoring double digits, more points off turnovers, more free throws made, 25 for 33, more rebounds.

The one big stat though that says a lot is three point shots. The Clippers made only seven of 25 and the Hawks made 13 of 27.

After the game the Clippers were very emotional and their frustration was evident. They had the game won, but once again they let it slip away.

L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul after the game.
L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul after the game.

The final score was 107 to 98 and the Atlanta Hawks improved their record to 26-8.

After the game Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said, “[The] first half, our defense was spectacular. We lost the game because we turned the ball over and gave them easy shots.”

The coach also address the turnovers committed by the Clippers, 21 total. “We forced a lot of passes. Guys were trying to make plays — too many. Again, 23 assists and 21 turnovers; it’s hard to win a game against anybody, especially a team like that.”

We are only half way through the season so Rivers pointed out, “I don’t like using history, but I think the [San Antonio] Spurs had the worst win-loss record against their opponents going into the playoffs last year.” Their record was 62-20 at the end of the regular season.

Coach rivers added, “I like our style. When we play well, we win. When we don’t play well, we lose.”

Clippers power forward Blake Griffin spoke after the game and said, “We got a lot of basketball left to play and a lot of time. We still have three and a half months left, lot of basketball, like I said. Tonight, this moment — January — is not the time give up and think that we’re really in trouble.”

Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer
Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer

Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said, “We were able to kind of maintain our poise and find a way. We got a little bit of separation, they’re so good they came back at us and we were able to find a way to win. Our defense at times was good, we just have to do it longer.”

A big reason the Hawks took over the second half was their defense. After the game Hawks power forward Paul Milsap said, “The emphasis is always going to be defense. We don’t just talk about it, we go out there, we want to be about it. We want to be a hard-nosed defensive team.”

And Atlanta came to win. “We cam here with a road mentality, a mentality to win and we executed the plan.”

Hawks shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha is from Switzerland and South Africa and started his NBA career with the Oklahoma City Thunder before joining Atlanta. I asked him what it was like to be playing here in the U.S. “It’s fun. To be honest, it’s something I got a little bit used to playing with Oklahoma for a while and playing with such great players. But it’s been fun, when you’re coming here from a different country, being able to come here in the U.S. and play basketball, it’s a dream. I’m loving every minute of it, especially now, you know, the team is rolling and we’re playing well, so it’s fun.”

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Tonight at Staples Center the Clippers will host the Lakers in a cross-court rivalry that began this season on Halloween, a game the Clippers won, 118-111.

It wasn’t easy for the Clippers that night, despite the Lakers having a tough start to the season. By the end of the third quarter the Lakers had clawed their way back and were leading, 90-86. It took big efforts by Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin especially to get past the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

Thabo Sefolosha after the game.
Thabo Sefolosha after the game.

For their part, the Lakers are playing better at this point in the season, despite what their record indicates. They use Kobe Bryant less, saving him for key times in the game. He didn’t play Monday Night when the Lakers went to Portland to face the Trailblazers.

They’ve won two of their last five games, beating the Denver Nuggets and the Indiana Pacers. Neither team has a winning record, but with or without Bryant, the Lakers can win.

Still, the Clippers are hurting after the loss to the Hawks so they will be coming on to the court with determination. Most people won’t expect an upset win by the Lakers, but the Lakers have five players who average 10 points or more per game, plus Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer and Bryant grabbing five or more rebounds per game, so if they can play up to their potential it could be another long night for the Clippers.

(All photos by Claudia Gestro, unless otherwise noted)