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Wednesday, March 29, 2006 

CLIPPERS CAN'T GET PAST VELVET ROPE

Again the Clippers crashed an A-list party, and again they got bounced. Last night at Staples Center, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs gave the Clippers a clinic in defense, shotmaking and playoff intensity, turning a fair fight into an instructional video midway through the third quarter en route to a 98-87 rout.

Viewed objectively, the Clippers have had a nice little year. But to reach elite status, they must make quantum leaps in two categories: overall consistency and games against top teams. Any 82-game season will have its vicissitudes, but the up-and-down Clippers have had no winning streak longer than their longest losing streak (five). Elite teams put together stretches of seven, eight, nine wins in a row.

Similarly, the Clippers have shown an inability to compete with the premier teams in the NBA. Against the four Western Conference opponents with the best records, the Clippers have gone a woeful 3-8. Against the five best teams in the league, they're a pitiful 3-9 with exactly one win since early December. Obviously, most teams struggle with the Spurs and Mavericks and Suns of the world, but the Clippers don't view themselves as most teams.

Last night, the Clips hung with the Spurs for a few minutes before Gregg Popovich implemented a zone defense that discombobulated L.A. When you lateral the ball more than you pass it, you know your offense is in trouble, and the Clips promptly fell behind 18-10. But Pop took out the zone and the Clips, after trailing 48-42 at halftime, went ahead 51-50 on the kind of aggressive move we need more of from Chris Kaman, picking the ball up in traffic and laying it in quickly with the right hand.

Right after that, though, San Antonio went on a 13-0 run that put them up 63-51 and effectively ended the ballgame, the Clippers starting the fourth quarter down ten and never coming closer. By then, the Spurs had imposed a lockdown worthy of Pelican Bay, holding the Clippers to 37.8% FGs and 1-10 3FGs while hitting 49.3% and 10-25. The Clippers double-teamed Tim Duncan and the Spurs' bigs too much, leaving wide open perimeter shooters who made them pay again and again and again.

Elton Brand had 20 and 10, but Brand as a 20-and-10 man is so last season. This year, that's a bad game for Elton, and indeed it was, as he missed 11 of 18 attempts. At times, EB gets the ball in scoring position and almost waits for the defender or double-team to come; I'd like to see him assert himself more down the stretch.

Corey Maggette got to the line 12 times, leading the Clippers to one of their few statistical advantages, but shot 3-11 from the field, and many of the misses were who-opened-the-door head-scratchers that turned Coach Dunleavy eight shades of red.
Sam Cassell took too few shots and made too few at 3-8, while Cuttino Mobley missed all six of his looks, most of them uncontested.

I did see a lot of positives:
-- Kaman did not shrink from the challenge, posting 18 and 8 on 6-10 FGs and 6-7 FTs. He's showing flashes of the quickness and aggressiveness that can make him one of the best bona fide centers in the game.
-- While Vladimir Radmanovic remained ice-cold from downtown, he added some moves to his repertoire, driving to the basket once for a dunk and again for a layup. I'd love to see more of the same from Vlad Rad even when he rediscovers his stroke.
-- It's great to see Zeljko Rebraca healthy and suited up. He contributed three points, three rebounds and two blocks in 12 high-energy, high-quality minutes. I just love having his presence on the court.
-- Q Ross did his job in limited minutes, helping hold the Spurs' starting backcourt to 12 points.
-- Most important, the first half may have been Shaun Livingston's best half of basketball as a pro. That highlight-reel dunk in Portland must have loosened him up, because he showed no fear, driving in for a layup, hitting turnaround jumpers, canning free throws, and closing the scoring with a slam dunk off a Kaman feed. Keep it up, Kid!

The Clips have a chance to close out March 10-6 with a getaway win Friday night over the Utah Jazz at Staples. The Jazz are healthy, highly motivated, and just spanked the Nuggets in Denver. The Clips had better find their shooting touch -- oh yeah, and an answer for the pick-and-roll.

Click on Clipper Talk and join the discussion. -- Jordan


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