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Rocketing Towards a First-Round Exit

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Last night’s nationally televised game between the Clippers and the Rockets (a five-point win for Houston) demonstrated the kind of progress that the Clips have made over the last month, and why the team will hold on to the eighth spot with their eleven remaining games. It also illustrated the reasons why the Clips have fallen far short of the lofty expectations set forth for them this year.

Both teams displayed a level of execution typically seen in the postseason, with only 20 combined turnovers, and the teams traded blows like a heavyweight fight. The Clippers team during the middle 40 games of the year could not have held their ground in this kind of game. However, when it truly mattered, it was the Rockets that stepped up and made the plays in crunch time while the Clippers stumbled. Houston was also aided by a TERRIBLE call by Steve Javie, who only awarded Cuttino Mobley two shots when he was clearly hacked in the act of shooting a game-tying three-pointer with two seconds left.

The Clippers can be a very good team, and proved that they can play with an elite-level team like the Rockets, a darkhorse title contender. But they still haven’t found a way to cross the fine line that separates very good from mediocre.

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Last night it was two possessions that decided the game. With the Clips nursing a two-point lead in the final minute, T-Mac penetrated and drew a double team, then found Shane Battier for a wide-open three. On the other end? The Clips ran a half-hearted pick-and-roll, dribbling around the perimeter for 15 seconds, then had Tim Thomas shoot a contested three, which he bricked. One defensive stop, Clippers win. One well-executed play, Clippers win. Two bad sequences equal a Clipper loss.

The Clips, even with their depleted roster, have the moxie and talent to stay ahead of the inferior teams chasing them, as seen in the tremendous offensive basketball that they played during the first half; they built a seven-point lead while picking apart the league’s top-rated field goal percentage defense with a combination of crisp ball movement out of double teams, dribble penetration, and transition baskets off of defensive rebounds. But they simply don’t have the consistency to win a seven-game series against any top contender, as seen in last night’s ugly third quarter, in which they reverted to their isolation, jump-shooting bad habits and were outscored by 16.

There was some good news, though: their main rivals continue to look like playoff posers. Denver lost at home to lowly Seattle, while NO/OKC and Minnesota both lost tight road games to San Antonio and Utah. LA stands 1.5 games up in the standings for the last playoff spot, and still 1.5 behind Denver for the seven spot.

AP photo by Kevork Djansezian