The Clippers wasted an opportunity under the spotlight, losing to the Cavaliers… (Gus Ruelas / Associated…)
The first half ended with a sense of impending opportunity lost.
This was the Clippers versus the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was also the NBA in November, which has a history and significance of entertainment value along the lines of the horseshoe playoffs at the local senior center.
In the NBA, they play 82 games for the right to qualify for about 50 more. Drama starts in mid-February. By then, the traveling troubadours of Commissioner David Stern can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Also, additional wads of cash. They all say they play for the ring and they all cash the playoff checks.
History also tells us that the Clippers versus the Cavaliers on a Monday night is as good an excuse as any to stay home and help the kids with the homework.
But these aren't your father's Clippers. And, Monday night at Staples Center, these didn't appear to be your father's Cavaliers, either. Had LeBron James returned and nobody told us?
The 1-2 Cavaliers led the 2-1 Clippers, 57-50, and when the half ended with household name Anderson Varejao flipping in a driving layup at the buzzer that would have made a Michael Jordan highlight film, there was reason to believe this evening might not be sterling for Donald.
Normally, this wouldn't matter. Normally, the Clippers wouldn't matter.
But with the arrival of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and a trip to the Western Conference semifinals, expectations grew. The Clippers were no longer merely a second tenant in Staples, a team that gave fans priced out of the gold-plated Lakers' seats an opportunity to see star players from other teams without taking out a second mortgage.
Flash forward to now. NBA-crazed Los Angeles is collectively biting its fingernails over the Lakers' 1-3 start. Sure, they won a game, but it was the Pistons. Are the Little Sisters of the Poor on the schedule? Newspapers filled their pages with Lakers handwringing. The TV anchors, clearly in mourning, lowered their voices and furrowed their brows. Sportscasts sounded like verbal obits.
And then the Lakers' Steve Nash broke a bone in his leg that may keep him out for a month. Community sobbing became epidemic. The Lakers' puppeteer was gone. Could the showtime go on?
Those who had hung around the Clippers and stayed faithful could see the possibilities. Paul and Griffin were healthy. The team that had a good run last season had retooled nicely. There were even whispers, sacrilegious as they might be, that (speak softly here) the Clippers might be the better team in Los Angeles right now.
Which brings us back to the game and opportunities. With a city of fans watching ever so closely, even in these NBA dog days of November, beating Cleveland would have an impact. Every bump the Clippers gave themselves was crucial in a marketplace as fickle as a carnival barker.
November or not, this game actually mattered.
The Cavaliers aren't supposed to be much this season. The Clippers are — 12-1 to win the West in some Nevada sports books.
But as the final quarter began, the Cavaliers were still strutting their stuff and the Clippers were still stuttering.
The score going into those final 12 minutes — a time we are told to start watching in the NBA — was Cleveland 84, Clippers 78.
Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 draft choice in 2011 after only a freshman year at Duke, had 20 points. So did rookie Dion Waiters, out of Syracuse. Paul, Griffin and Co. were battling hard and falling short.
Would this golden opportunity to get a leg up on the Lakers, even if only for a few days, slip away?
It wasn't that the Clippers didn't try. Paul, whom his former coach and current Cavaliers Coach Byron Scott calls "the silent assassin," pulled out his six-shooter and went to work. He dropped in a three-point bomb for 93-87, then drove the length of the floor to score for 93-89 while the Cavaliers' Tyler Zeller was face down, having thrown his face into somebody's elbow. On the play, the Clippers "had the numbers," as they say in the NBA.
Zeller was gone for the night, but the Cavaliers weren't.
Griffin made a spectacular left-handed dunk for 104-101, but Irving, Chris-Paul-spectacular with 24 points and 10 assists, out-gunned the silent assassin with a three-point bomb for 107-101.
The final score was 108-101, but it wasn't all bad. The 19,060 attendance marked the 53rd straight Staples sellout for the Clippers, who once gave away tickets like grocery store coupons.
Still, as in life and the NBA in Los Angeles, opportunity knocks only so often.