NEW YORK -- During the season's first month the Los Angeles Clippers have proven they're a great team in L.A. -- in fact, the best team in town so far. But this week's demanding road trip has served as a reminder that they don't have it all figured out just yet.
For a third straight away game the Clippers' stars were either mysteriously absent or just not very good in the fourth quarter. They survived in San Antonio on Monday thanks to some good bench play and the cushion they'd built. But in Oklahoma City on Wednesday and then again in Brooklyn on Friday the Clippers were outplayed in winning time and lost -- a jarring change after an early-season run of impressive victories.
The Brooklyn Nets held the Clippers to 13 points in the fourth quarter and just 29 in the second half in an 86-76 win. To make that happen, Blake Griffin pulled a disappearing act he's apparently been honing on this road trip, Chris Paul had one of the most bizarre five-minute stretches of his career, DeAndre Jordan was owned by a former teammate and Jamal Crawford had one of his "off" nights.
Credit is first owed to the Nets, who were strong defensively in their first game back home after a 1-2 Western swing. It probably qualified as Brooklyn's best win of the young season.
Brook Lopez, who's off to a good start, had 26 points, marking the sixth time in seven games he's scored more than 20. He didn't box out DeAndre Jordan very well -- boxing out is not a strong suit for Lopez, who is averaging just more than six rebounds a game -- but he went right at Jordan and scored on him twice during a run in the fourth quarter that helped decide the game.
Joe Johnson, who had not been playing all that well, found the weakness in the Clippers' otherwise deep and strong backcourt rotation that includes Paul, Crawford and Eric Bledsoe. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Johnson used his size advantage to create space all night, racking up 19 points on just 12 shots.
Over in the Clippers' locker room, though, the mood was not so good. During the three games on the road trip, Griffin has averaged three points in the fourth quarter while taking just four official shots and going 5-of-10 at the foul line.
Against the Nets, he didn't have a shot or a free throw after coming in for the game's final seven minutes. He did have a rebound, which was one more than Jordan had in the quarter. Meanwhile, former Clipper Reggie Evans had seven of them down the stretch.
Certainly, Griffin is entitled to a bad game here and there, but his lack of playmaking in the fourth quarters of challenging road games is not a positive trend. He had just two points and three shots in the second half.
"There's other ways to affect a game than getting shots," Griffin said. "That's something I've got to look at and get better at."
Perhaps the Clippers might have to look at him some, too. If they were running plays to get him involved it either wasn't obvious or it didn't work. They didn't run much of anything, turning the ball over eight times in the fourth. Coach Vinny Del Negro seemed to try to remove some blame from his star power forward.
"We didn't get [Griffin] the ball enough," Del Negro said. "In the second half especially."
You've got to be able to do it on the road. Good teams can. Good teams execute on the road down the stretch. Everybody knows what their role is.
”-- Chris Paul
After going just 2-of-10 shooting with two assists and three turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime of the games in San Antonio and Oklahoma City this week, Paul's fourth quarter Friday was even worse. He was 0-for-3 with an assist, two turnovers and -- brace yourself -- six fouls in a span of 5:40.
"Man, that was crazy, goodness," Paul said. "I've never had that happen unless it was a video game."
A couple of the calls were questionable but there was no gray area with Paul's play. Having carved out a reputation as being one of the best finishers in the league it's even more unusual. Slumps happen to everyone but this one had Paul looking in the mirror and realizing his team needs to make some road adjustments.
"I'm probably holding onto the ball too much and I need to move it," Paul said. "We've got to be better on the road and that starts with me."
The issue is teamwide. Crawford is 6-of-19 in the fourth quarter and overtime this week. The Crawford-led Clippers' bench, which looked like one of the best in the league when the team was at home, chalking up wins over the likes of the Heat, Grizzlies and Spurs, has been inconsistent. The Clippers haven't been able to survive games when their stars have been off.
It's all served as a bit of a reality check after the Clippers' six-game win streak, all against teams with winning records, had them flying high.
"You've got to be able to do it on the road," Paul said. "Good teams can. Good teams execute on the road down the stretch. Everybody knows what their role is."