After building a 10-point lead over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers only to watch it disappear in just 2 1/2 minutes, the Los Angeles Clippers still had a chance to pull out the W in Wednesday's late-night Western Conference battle. Unfortunately for Chris Paul and company, they just ran out of time in the fourth quarter.
Or, at least, that's what DeAndre Jordan thought.
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With 2.8 seconds left in regulation — and 1.7 seconds left on the shot clock; this is important — and the game knotted at 87, the Clippers prepared to inbound the ball from the sideline in front of the Blazers' bench. Paul — who's been sensational in keeping the Clippers afloat without injured All-Star running buddy Blake Griffin, and who'd been phenomenal to that point on Wednesday night — found himself forced to deal with Portland swingman Nicolas Batum, all 6 feet, 8 inches of him, with that 7-foot-plus wingspan.
As the play opened, Paul curled from the paint toward the sideline around screens from Jordan and J.J. Redick, carving out just enough room to cleanly catch Hedo Turkoglu's pass. He continued his curl toward the cup, lofting a floating runner off the glass with two seconds remaining, before Blazers center Robin Lopez could get free to contest the shot.
Paul's banker hit the rim just as the shot-clock buzzer sounded, but rolled off the tin and out ... directly into the outstretched right hand of Jordan, who had no other tall humans between him and the basket, and only Blazers point guard Damian Lillard on his back to theoretically contest a shot. There was just one problem: Jordan mistook the shot-clock buzzer for the end-of-game buzzer, so he didn't put the ball back up and in.
That's when all hell broke loose.
The game clock, for some reason, stopped at 0.7 seconds, despite there not being a shot-clock violation and the ball remaining in play. Basketball genius Paul, who instantly recognized what happened, went nuts directly in front of Jordan, exhorting his center to shoot the bleepin'-bleepin' ball and win the game. His impassioned plea and Rick Grimes-esque facial contortions will live forever:
But Jordan didn't, and after sorting through the whole mess, the officials decided to just send the contest to overtime ... which was bad news for the Clippers, because even though Portland stars Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were having off nights from the field, the gifted-but-at-times-aloof Batum was superconnected and switched on:
Batum either scored or directly assisted on Portland's final 19 points on Wednesday, hitting the 3-pointer to tie the game at 87 late in regulation before being absolutely everywhere during the extra session.
That closing sequence — feeding Aldridge for his second straight alley-oop finish, chasing down and rejecting Redick's layup attempt, then calmly drilling the dagger triple that put the Blazers up five with 21 seconds remaining — is about as total a takeover of a game as you're ever going to see from a non-superstar, and it's the kind of thing that makes you re-evaluate Terry Stotts' club just a little bit:
The Batum that showed up today is the one that makes you believe Portland can get further than the second round.
— Robert H (@bandwagonknick) March 5, 2015
Batum finished with 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting (4-for-8 from 3-point land) to go with eight assists, seven rebounds, two blocks, one steal and just one turnover in 40 1/2 minutes of work as the Blazers finished off the comeback, stunning the Clippers, 98-93, to win their fourth straight game to improve to 40-19 and move into the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, percentage points ahead of the 41-20 Houston Rockets.
It was a marked about-face from the struggles that Batum experienced earlier in the season. With Lillard (just five points on 1-for-13 shooting with five turnovers against four assists, albeit with a career-high 18 rebounds) and Aldridge (a 12-for-30 mark from the floor to get his team-high 29 points) both floundering on the offensive end, it couldn't have come at a better time for Portland.
"Nobody's been harder on Nic than Nic," coach Terry Stotts said. "He just wants to play well and he's put a lot of pressure on himself to have a game like he just had against a quality team and to make big plays. He was able to be a facilitator, which is something that just makes us a deeper team." [...]
"We all know that Lillard's a great scorer, and tonight just wasn't his night. But we found a way to make big plays, especially at the end of the fourth and overtime," Batum said. "My job with this team the last three years has been to do a little bit of everything on the court. I can assist, rebound and score. We knew we had a good matchup on the pick-and-roll with LaMarcus and me, so we tried to take advantage of it."
After the game, though, we were left wondering about the Clippers' inability to take advantage of the chance to win the game — a chance that, quite literally, rested right in their center's massive hands. From Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram:
Paul afterward was asked to explain that bizarre sequence with Jordan.
“It would have been nice if he tipped it back in,” Paul said. “Also, it would have been nice if I had made the shot and it wouldn’t have come to that.”
Coach Doc Rivers said that, absolutely, Jordan thought regulation was over when he grabbed the ball after Paul’s miss.
“Yeah, clearly he did,” Rivers said.
He was asked if he had ever seen anything like that happen before.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know if he could have gotten it up anyway with 0.7, but probably could have.”
Jordan left before reporters could speak to him. The Clippers’ public relations department passed out a quote sheet with two short quotes, neither specifically addressing that play.
“Tonight was a tough loss,” Jordan said. “We had our chances.”
But they didn't capitalize, and as a result, what would have been a brilliant win — with Paul exploding for 36 points and 12 assists and Redick chipping in 26 points to pick up the slack for the injured Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes — turned into a dispiriting defeat. The Clippers now sit at 40-22, even with the Dallas Mavericks in the West's No. 5 spot in, and just two games ahead of the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The lesson, as always: lose focus for even a split-second in a conference this brutal, and you can find yourself on the precipice of tumbling down the mountain.
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