Clippers (23-16) vs. Boston Celtics (21-19) at Staples Center, 7:30 p.m. PT
Five storylines to track:
1. Always be closing: When Phil Jackson was coaching the Lakers, he would always play Alec Baldwin’s famous speech from the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross" where Baldwin broke down the meaning of the A-B-C of sales. “A -- always; B -- be; C -- closing. Always be closing!” Well, it would behoove Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to dust off that old DVD and show it to his team before they play the Celtics on Monday night. The Clippers have been anything but closers recently. In fact, they’ve been more like Jonathan Broxton on the mound trying to protect a one-run lead. The Clippers are 4-7 in their last 11 games, losing their last three by a combined nine points. They are now 8-8 in games decided by five points or fewer and look lost in critical situations down the stretch. “It's something we’re trying to figure out,” Blake Griffin said. “If we knew, it would be easier. It’s one of those things where we talk about it and we’re just flat a lot.”
2. Starters disappear: The Clippers are at their best when everyone gets involved in the offense early and are at their absolute worst when one or more starters completely disappears. Against the Warriors on Sunday, both DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler were practically invisible. They combined for five points and didn’t play at all after the midway point of the third quarter. For the second time in a week, Butler failed to record a single field goal, going 0-for-6. He hadn’t failed to score a field goal for six years before doing it against Minnesota on March 5.
3. Bench mob: Perhaps the only positive takeaway from the Clippers’ loss to Golden State on Sunday were the performances of Reggie Evans and Eric Bledsoe off the bench. The duo helped the Clippers erase a 21-point deficit in the third quarter and helped tie the game with 4:30 left. Evans finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds while Bledsoe had four steals, three assists and two points, and helped set up one big play after another during the Clippers’ run. Even Bobby Simmons stepped up and added six points and two rebounds during the stretch. All three players finished with a plus/minus of at least plus-12. The problem: Mo Williams, who is usually the only consistent scorer off the bench, was nowhere to be found. He started the game 0-for-7 and finished with just three points after hitting one 3-pointer.
4. Masked man: Chris Paul wore a protective mask against Golden State for the first time in his career and will likely have to wear it for the next two weeks after suffering a nasal fracture against San Antonio last week. It was clear the mask was bothersome for Paul at the beginning of the game as he continued to play with it in between plays and completely took it off during longer stoppages. "It's different,” Paul said. “But it doesn't inhibit anything.” The mask didn’t seem to slow down Paul after the first quarter as he had 23 points, five assists and three steals. Paul, however, was still kicking himself after the game for missing three free throws and all four of his 3-point attempts. “That's the real story of this,” Paul said after the loss. “We beat ourselves.”
5. Turning point: There’s never one reason why a team hits a wall; it’s usually a variety of factors that come together at once. But if the Clippers had to pick one turning point in their season, it has to be at Orlando Feb. 6, when the Clippers beat the Magic 107-102 in overtime. The day after that game, an MRI revealed Chauncey Billups was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Kenyon Martin, who Billups recruited to join the team, was signed and activated. Billups’ loss has been felt on and off the court, especially late in games, and his absence has correlated with Butler's dramatic drop in production. Butler no longer gets the same open looks on the wing that he got when Billups used to penetrate the paint. Meanwhile, Martin’s addition has stunted the growth of Jordan, who simply hasn’t been the same with Martin playing critical minutes down the stretch in Jordan's place. If the Clippers can’t find a way to get Butler and Jordan to return to their old form when the team started 19-9, the current free fall they are on will get worse before it gets better.