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Friday, March 03, 2006 

CLIPPERS CAN'T CLIMB MOUNTAIN

One day after Charles Barkley suggested the Clippers could contend for the Western Conference crown, the team delivered a performance that made the national ESPN audience shrug its collective shoulders and say, as Queen Latifah sang in Fly Girl, "You must be mad." The Clippers simply didn't show up to play the Utah Jazz until too late, falling behind by fourteen midway through the second quarter before succumbing for the 33rd time in 34 games at the Delta Center, 105-103. A 96-89 decision on January 22, 2003 remains their only victory in Salt Lake City since April 18, 1989.

All indications had been that Jazz star Andrei Kirilenko would sit the game out with back spasms. When he took to the court for the warm-up, it seemed to cast a pall over the Clippers, as though they'd been expecting an easy win and weren't ready for a fight. The first quarter buttressed that theory, as the Clips fell behind by as many as eleven on some of their sloppiest play of the season. They would spend the rest of the night in a Sisyphean struggle to scale that mountain.

Elton Brand led all scorers with 31 but had more blocks (five) than rebounds (four), as the Clippers lost yet another battle of the boards. Vladimir Radmanovic posted a double-double with seventeen points (including 5-8 3FGs) and thirteen rebounds, but missed several key defensive rotations. After deferring to his teammates too much throughout the game, Sam Cassell erupted late to finish with sixteen points, including two free throws that knotted the game at 103 in the closing seconds before Deron Williams threw in the game-winning floater.

In his long-awaited return, Corey Maggette hit 3-11 FGs and 5-6 FTs in 25 minutes. He looked smaller than before and jacked up a number of bad shots either too early in the shot clock or when too well covered. As one poster wrote, "It's too bad Maggette didn't rehab his brain." We've all missed Maggs' aggressiveness and athleticism, but with Chris Wilcox gone, his low basketball IQ really stands out now on this squad.

Another returning Clipper, Chris Kaman had ten points (all in the first half) and eight rebounds. Too many times this year Chris has had big first quarters or first halves and disappeared after intermission a la Michael Olowokandi. He also made some bad passes that led to Jazz fastbreaks and missed a few rotations of his own (the Jazz had six dunks, the Clippers none). The Clippers' early lethargy manifested itself in a slowness to the ball and nonchalance with it that have become far too frequent in recent weeks.

Shaun Livingston had five points in fifteen minutes of relief but was pulled for good just as he hit his stride. Earlier, he had driven to the basket for what should have been an and-1, but as Ralph Lawler noted, "Shaun just cannot finish AT ALL." He missed the easy layup and missed three of four foul shots. Shaun really needs to stay after practice to work on his FTs. Meanwhile, Coach Dunleavy may have stayed too long with Walter McCarty, who did nothing good on either end of the court in his eleven minutes. James Singleton wasn't a DNP-CD; he was on the inactive list and appears -- inexplicably to us outsiders -- to have replaced Wilcox in Dun's doghouse. Quinton Ross saw just 35 seconds of late action as a defensive stopper.

For the game, L.A. -- who entered as the league's best defensive team -- allowed Utah to shoot 47.6% overall and 58.3% from beyond the arc. The Clips actually executed with equivalent efficiency (48.6% overall and 52.9% 3FGs); the difference was that, thanks to four more offensive rebounds (12-8) and six fewer turnovers (8-14), the Jazz generated twelve more shots (84-72) and five more makes (40-35).

Mehmet Okur absolutely torched the Clippers with 29 points on 11-16 shooting, including a dagger threeball in the final minute. And Kirilenko, despite only eight points, set the tone early with his blocks and steals as the Jazz outworked the Clippers from the opening tip. Each team ended with six players in double figures, but the Jazz bench outscored the Clipper reserves, 36-17.

Even with AK-47 in the Jazz lineup, the Clippers are clearly the superior team on paper. When your franchise is finally good -- as the Clippers are -- it's so important to go out and get wins in places and against teams that have had your number. It gets the monkey off your back and frees you to make new mental and muscular memories. The Clippers did it earlier in Portland but have squandered chances against Sacramento and now Utah and have quietly lost five straight on the road.

They'll return to the friendly confines of Staples Center for an Oscar Night clash with the Grizzlies and will have to hope the Lakers tire the Spurs out Monday ahead of their matchup with San Antonio on Tuesday. Meanwhile, click on Clipper Talk and join the discussion. -- Jordan


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