The Clippers escaped this time, but barely, heaving a sigh of relief when a missed jumper by DeMarcus Cousins off an inbounds play sealed their 103-102 victory over the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on Saturday.
At some point their defensive shortcomings will hurt them, and they acknowledged it. The Clippers played what Coach Doc Rivers called a sensational first quarter defensively and led by 20 in the second quarter before they admittedly let up. That allowed the physical and boisterous Kings to lead by five with just under three minutes left in the fourth quarter and by four as late as with 2:15 left until Chris Paul bailed them out again.
"At some point we knew we weren't going to shoot the ball as well, but we've got to find a way to sustain our defense," said Paul, who had 22 points and nine assists, ending his NBA-record streak of at least 10 points and 10 assists to start the season at 13.
The Kings scored 46 of their points in the paint, one factor in making this the 11th game in which the Clippers (9-5) have allowed an opponent to score 100 points or more. It's not a sound long-term strategy.
"At some point we're going to have to lean on our defense. That's going to be a big thing for us," Jamal Crawford said. "Ultimately, in the playoffs and beyond, that's where we're going to have to hang our hats."
Absent that stifling, shutdown defense, they had to hang their hats on Paul, who was their spark and took over by force of will in scoring eight points in the fourth quarter.
"It's not a pretty win, but we'll take this one," forward Jared Dudley said.
Paul's three-point shot late in the shot clock brought the Clippers even at 98-98, and Blake Griffin's rebound of Cousins' missed free throw — one of his 10 rebounds in the game — led to Paul getting a layup that gave them a lead of 100-98.
Paul missed a free throw and Isaiah Thomas tied it with two free throws, then Griffin put the Clippers ahead on a driving dunk. Thomas brought the teams even again at 102 on free throws, but Paul was fouled by Patrick Patterson. He hit the first one but missed the second, and Cousins rebounded it.
After the Kings took a timeout with 1.9 seconds left, they set up a play and got the inbound pass to Cousins.
"The only thing they could do is a jump shot," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said. "When he caught the ball I just wanted to be long and not try to give him contact but make it a tough shot for him. I was just praying they didn't call it a foul."
Jordan, who said he thought he might have gotten a piece of the shot, wasn't officially credited with a block. The Clippers' first-quarter defense in building a 29-13 lead and holding the Kings to 30% shooting, he said, should be the defensive model for the season.
"Our intensity on defense was what got us the lead early," he said. "I feel like we got away from that in the second quarter. That's why they cut the lead down. If we can play that way consistently for 48 minutes, we're going to be tough to beat."
Rivers credited Jordan for doing a good job on Cousins, despite Cousins' game highs of 23 points and 19 rebounds, but Griffin probably had the best summation of all. "We're going to have games like that," he said, "but we shouldn't have put ourselves in that situation."