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Clippers

Clippers rally but miss opportunities late in 83-80 loss to Bulls

Taj Gibson, Blake Griffin

Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) fights for a rebound with Bulls power forward Taj Gibson in the first half.

(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

It was a strange game that somehow kept getting stranger.

The Clippers scored 11 points in the second quarter. They lost Blake Griffin in the third quarter on a play that was initially ruled a common foul before being upgraded to a flagrant 2, necessitating his ejection.

Then something truly bizarre happened: The Clippers came all the way back from a 12-point deficit, using an ultra-small lineup of reserves featuring Lance Stephenson at power forward, before ultimately succumbing, 83-80, to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night at United Center.

“I commend our effort getting back into the game,” Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said, “but if it’s close like that, we should be able to win basketball games.”

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The Clippers had a chance to force overtime when Wesley Johnson inbounded the ball to Chris Paul with 6.4 seconds left and the Bulls ahead by three points. But Paul’s off-balance three-point attempt bounced off the back of the rim and the Clippers’ three-game winning streak was over.

It was just part of a string of missed opportunities over the final 21/2 minutes that included a missed layup, two offensive fouls and Paul fouling Aaron Brooks on a three-point attempt.

“Last two minutes is where I want to be great,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, “and the last two minutes tonight we were not great.”

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The Clippers (13-10) appeared finished when Griffin, their only player in rhythm offensively at the time, was ejected midway through the third quarter for swiping his arm across the face of Chicago’s Taj Gibson while attempting to block his shot, snapping Gibson’s head back violently. Referees converged to watch the replay before upgrading the foul to a flagrant 2.

“He got me up in the air on a pump fake,” Griffin said. “I thought he was going up so I tried to swipe across the ball. Obviously, I missed.”

Gibson said he did not think Griffin, who finished with a team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds, intended to hurt him and was surprised the play resulted in Griffin’s ejection.

“First thing as soon as it happened, he reached down to make sure I was OK,” said Gibson, the former USC star. “I’ve known Blake for a long time. Great guy. Even after he got ejected, he was making sure I was OK.”

The Clippers were clearly not OK offensively, having made three of 23 shots during a second quarter in which their 11 points tied their season low for a quarter. They managed only 54 points through the end of the third quarter, with the Bulls holding a 10-point lead at the time despite shooting only 36.9%.

Then Rivers went to his small-ball lineup that included Stephenson, Johnson, Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers. The reserves played a freewheeling style and combined to make four consecutive three-pointers, including one by Smith that capped a 12-0 run and pulled the Clippers into a 66-66 tie with 7 minutes 29 seconds left.

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Doc Rivers described the second unit’s approach as “great chaos.”

“We were running a spread triple-weave that we’ve never run before,” said Rivers, whose team made eight of 11 three-pointers in the fourth quarter, “so it turned into a park and we almost pulled it out.”

Then the Clippers starters began trickling back into the game and they couldn’t finish. Rivers said he regretted not going to the small lineup in the first half, something he had originally intended to do.

“I just thought it was a funky game,” Rivers said. “I could see it visually, that this game was not the game I planned going into it, so I was going to make the change early in the second quarter and I didn’t do it. Sometimes you’ve just got to go with your gut and I should have done that.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch


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