LOS ANGELES — At this stage, when the Celtics are just trying to string together consecutive encouraging quarters, it was too much to ask to compete with the league’s deepest and most impressive team at Staples Center.
And the Lakers were nowhere close to downtown Los Angeles late Thursday night. The Los Angeles Clippers have put quietly and matter-of-factly put together a long string of wins, while the NBA focus has been squarely on the dysfunctional Lakers.
With an array of players who took turns carving chunks out of the still-developing Celtics’ defense, the Clippers used 21 points from Matt Barnes and 16 from Blake Griffin to overwhelm the Celtics, 106-77, for their 15th straight win.
It wasn’t that the Celtics played that poorly. They played their typical up-and-down, topsy-turvy game, but against a club that had won its previous 14, it turned ugly in the fourth quarter. Kevin Garnett tallied a rather dispassionate 16 points as the Celtics, with 18 turnovers, missed layups and defensive breakdowns, proved unprepared for such a challenge.
The Clippers (23-6) scored the first 8 points of the fourth quarter to lead, 90-67, and the final 10 minutes were rendered meaningless. After an impressive win over the reeling Brooklyn Nets on Christmas Day, the Celtics knew they would be hard-pressed to beat a team playing so well and they were right.
“I thought we really out-thought the game,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I told our guys that. I could hear all the talk about different coverages. We play the same defense every night for the most part and I just thought we were out-thinking ourselves and I probably should have stopped it, but I didn’t.”
Los Angeles made few mistakes (eight turnovers), drained 12 3-pointers, outscored the Celtics in the paint, 42-26, and led by as many as 32. The Clippers are so balanced, coach Vinny Del Negro was able to limit his starters to fewer than 30 minutes. Griffin played just 26.
In the end, it became embarrassing. Barnes canned a 3-pointer with just less than three minutes left that extended the Celtics’ deficit to 105-73. And it could have been worse had Los Angeles not missed 12 free throws.
The game got away in the third quarter when Caron Butler sparked a 9-0 run for a 78-57 Clippers lead. Rajon Rondo countered with a late 3-pointer to beat the clock, cutting the Celtics’ deficit to 15 entering the fourth, but that’s all the resistance they had left.
“They shot a high percentage tonight; it was a team effort,” Rondo said of the Clippers. “I give them a lot of credit from start to finish. We played great the last game, but tonight our offense was a couple of steps behind.”
The second quarter was dominated by the combination of Barnes and Jamal Crawford, who combined for 21 of the Clippers’ 30 points in the period. Barnes converted two 3-pointers, the first gave Los Angeles a 40-28 lead that capped an 8-0 run after the Celtics sliced the deficit to 4.
Barnes’s second 3-pointer extended the Clippers’ lead to 50-38 with 5:18 left as the Celtics had to leave someone open defensively after double-teaming Griffin. And try as Courtney Lee might, he couldn’t defend the unrelenting Crawford, who dribbled – and dribbled – until he found a crevice to slither through for a runner.
He scored 13 points in the quarter, which included a rainbow 3-pointer that nearly clipped the scoreboard for a 53-40 Clippers’ lead. The Celtics couldn’t get consistent stops, even when they scored consistently. Trying to stay close, the Celtics drew to within 56-47 on Garnett’s two free throws with 50.5 left.
Crawford, however, dazzled the fans with his ball-handling, finishing two runners off the glass for a 13-point halftime lead. The Celtics’ defense was cracking, allowing Los Angeles to shoot 54.3 percent and the bench to score 30 points.
With a crowd invigorated by LA’s other team emerging as the league’s best, the Clippers sliced through the overwhelmed Celtics in the first eight minutes as if they were untouchable. The Clippers pushed the ball at every opportunity, drained shots from the perimeter and dumped the ball into Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for easy hoops over their smaller opponents.
The Clippers used two 3-pointers from unheralded Willie Green, two layups from Griffin, and another pair from Jordan to take an 18-4 lead in the first 5:47. The crowd went into a frenzy and the Celtics were just trying to hang on before being obliterated by the barrage of dunks and 3-pointers.
Finally, the Celtics grew comfortable with the late start in their first game of the season on the West Coast. Rajon Rondo, in yet another duel with adversary Chris Paul, worked the ball around, giving Jason Terry and Paul Pierce opportunities to score. The Celtics couldn’t capitalize, however, missing 12 of 19 shots in the first quarter and they trailed at quarter’s end, 30-20.
Rivers decided to blend defense to confuse the Clippers but some of the zones were leaving the perimeter open, and Los Angeles drained 4 of 8 3-pointers in the first period and received 9 points from Griffin. The demoralizing aspect for the Celtics is that the Clippers had yet to unleash their bench, and they didn’t let up in the second period.