Clippers excel but still lose to Cavs
The pivotal possession with the Clippers trailing Cleveland 102-101 and 6.7 seconds left was easy to draw up during the preceding timeout.
"Pick-and-roll with Baron [Davis] and Craig [Smith]," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "Craig had the roll. We had shooters across the board, and it's Baron's call. Find the open guys, hit the roll man or make the play himself."
Once the Clippers inbounded the ball, Davis was unable to achieve any of those three options.
LeBron James and Anderson Varejao easily handled the screen by Smith. The lanky Varejao switched onto Davis, not yielding an inch to the Clippers point guard. With Davis unable to penetrate, Cleveland's wing defenders stayed at home on Eric Gordon and Rasual Butler to take away option No. 1.
Once Varejao picked up Davis off the screen, James promptly moved on to Smith, denying Davis a passing lane to his roll man and taking away option No. 2.
With the seconds evaporating, Davis had little recourse but to launch a contested, off-balance jumper over his 6-foot-11 defender. The shot didn't draw iron as the clock expired on option No. 3.
"There wasn't much room up there on the perimeter," Davis said. "Once they switched it, I was just trying to get some space, enough to get a good look at the basket. I didn't really get the kind of look I wanted to get."
It was a dejecting loss Saturday night for an undermanned Clippers team that led most of the way and shot a blistering 59.7 percent from the field. Without center Chris Kaman's presence down low for the fourth consecutive game, the Clippers had to count on their shooters to carry the offensive load. Both Gordon and Butler delivered in that capacity. Butler matched a career high with 33 points, and Gordon had 28.
"Our perimeter guys have done an excellent job of stepping it up," Davis said. "Our wings, Eric and Rasual, they were hot tonight. They played a great game."
When Kaman is healthy, the Clippers are one of the NBA's most post-oriented teams. Without him, they've been forced to refashion their offense around Gordon and Butler. Saturday, that adjustment was wildly successful. The Clippers used flare screens along the perimeter and skip passes against a pressuring Cleveland defense to find open attempts for their sharpshooters. Gordon finished 11-for-16 from the field (including 4-for-5 from 3-point range), and Butler made 12 of 18 shots (4 of 9 from beyond the arc).
"I hit some free throws early to get me going," Butler said. "Then my teammates found me when I was open, and I hit a few shots, and it kind of continued all night."
When Gordon and Butler weren't converting from long range, reserve forward Smith filled the void inside for the Clippers. He scored 16 points, most of them on his deceptively quick post moves against the Cavs' bigger defenders. As the game tightened, the Clippers repeatedly delivered the ball to Smith in the post and let him go to work against Varejao.
"I was just trying to be a playmaker, whether it's scoring or trying to find someone else to score," Smith said.
The Clippers found plenty of ways to score. They were far more accurate than the Cavs, who shot 48.1 percent from the field -- nearly 10 percent worse than the Clippers. Both teams earned 24 attempts from the free throw line, and turnovers were nearly even (13 for the Clippers, 12 for the Cavs).
LeBron was even held in relative check. He scored 32 points, grabbed 4 rebounds and dished out 4 assists despite outweighing his primary defender, Butler, by 50 pounds. When James had the ball on the wing, the Clippers quickly dispatched double-teams and zoned up on the weak side.
So what was the Clippers' problem?
"We didn't come up with the 50-50 balls," Dunleavy said. "[Cleveland] got too many offensive rebounds."
Fourteen, to be exact, which translated into 21 second-chance points for Cleveland.
"The only thing we have to be disappointed in is our rebounding," Gordon said. "When you look at the points, everyone was on. It was just our rebounds, especially at the end of the game."
Although Dunleavy noted his team's overall effort, and teammates were quick to praise Butler, Gordon and Smith for their production, every Clipper outright rejected the idea that the narrow loss represented a moral victory against the Eastern Conference's best.
"This is the NBA," Smith said. "Everybody here is talented, and whoever's out there on the floor is going to give it their all regardless of the situation they're in."
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.