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Not Clutch

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The difference between great teams and pretty-good teams, or pretty-good teams and mediocre teams is small. It’s a demonstrated ability to make plays at critical junctures of games. Great teams do it often, pretty-good teams do it sometimes, mediocre teams only occasionally. Memphis Grizzlies, never.

The Clippers’ deflating three-point overtime loss to the NO/OKC Hornets last night once again reflected the teams’ inability to make the plays in the clutch, an ability that has by and large eluded them all season, even during this most recent stretch of winning, and the primary cause for their current position of ninth place in the West, a half-game behind Golden St. Last night, it was critical mental errors that led to their demise.

In what is becoming too familiar a tale, the Clips raced out to a first-half double-digit lead, but were thoroughly outplayed in the third quarter. Trailing most of the way in the fourth, they turned to their superstar Elton Brand, who responded with a Herculean effort, resembling the EB who carried the Clips to the second round last year. Brand made shot after clutch shot, regardless of the Hornets’ defense en route to a season high 37 points. Brand’s dunk with 9.2 seconds left tied the game.

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But on the ensuing inbounds pass, newbie point guard Jason Hart inexplicably fouled Chris Paul around halfcourt, giving the Hornets’ star point guard the go-ahead two free-throws. Complete mental breakdown. Throughout LA, Clipper Nation could be heard throwing things at the TV. Brand was there to rescue the Clips again, hitting a baseline jumper with 1 second left to send the game in overtime.

In overtime, the Clippers apparently developed an allergic reaction to rebounding. Down by three in the last two minutes, the team stood idly by and watched the Hornets’ David West grab uncontested offensive rebounds and putbacks on consecutive possessions to effectively ice the game. It’s one thing if a guy makes a great hustle play or an uber-athletic play to get the ball. It’s another thing entirely if no one bothers to lay a hand on a guy who scored 33 freakin’ points. Boxing out is a skill that is learned at the Y in grade school. But the Clippers were apparently too tired or too lazy to find a man and stick their asses into his midsection. Meanwhile, Clipper Nation was grabbing their throats in agony.

The rest of the Western playoff contenders were idle on Tuesday. The Hornets climbed to within a game of the Warriors and a half-game of the Clippers with the win. The Clips now face a virtual must-win game on Thursday against the Lakers, in what is perhaps the most important meeting between the squads ever, given the stakes for both teams (which has never been the case, um, ever). While the Lakers are still two games up on the Warriors and two-and-a-half on the Clippers, a loss significantly tightens up the race. Since the Lakers are playing poorly not only in crunch time, but most of the game (particularly on defense) these days, it promises to be a highly competitive affair.

AP photo by Sue Ogrocki