NEW ORLEANS — The Los Angeles Clippers could not afford to lose to the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night at New Orleans Arena.
Not with a huge game Saturday against Memphis that could decide who may get home-court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
So, trailing by six points entering the fourth quarter, the Clippers stepped on the gas, scoring 39 points to pulled away, taking a 96-93 victory.
Los Angeles (53-26) scored on its last 11 possessions and 15 of its final 16. It had been held to 19 points in the second quarter and 14 in the third.
However, All-NBA point guard Chris Paul, who scored 10 points in the fourth, credited the Clippers defense, which picked up after a switch to a smaller lineup, with backup point guard Eric Bledsoe joining him in the backcourt.
“We really won because of our defense,” said Paul, who had 17 points and 14 assists. “We got stops when we needed to. (Eric) Gordon had a good game, but I think we had some timely stops on him. We got some stops down the stretch and were able to hold them off.
“The smaller lineup gave me an opportunity to get off the ball and (Bledsoe) and opportunity to attack. It just worked … because we were defending a little bit better.”
Gordon led the Hornets with 25 points, with Robin Lopez getting 19 points and 12 rebounds, and Brian Roberts, playing in place of injured starting point guard Greivis Vasquez, finishing with 15 points and 11 assists.
It was the Clippers’ fourth win in a row, while the Hornets have lost five of their past six games. However, the loss was yet another by the Hornets (27-53) in which an opponent finished with a flourish. But there seemed to be an omen throughout much of the game. The Hornets were 17-of-32 at the free-throw, arriving at that figure after shooting better in the second half. They shot 5-of-16 in the first half.
“Free throws and the fourth quarter,” said veteran Roger Mason Jr., summing up the loss, as the team played without injured starters Anthony Davis and Vasquez. “We played great defense for most of the game. But anytime you miss that many free throws and give up 39 points in the fourth quarter, you don’t give yourself a chance to win.”
However, it looked as though the Hornets, who scored 30 in the quarter, would hold on.
The Hornets led 85-81 with 2:19 left but did not score again until Ryan Anderson hit a 3-pointer with 19.1 seconds left. By then, the Clippers led 90-88 and salted the win away with six free throws by Paul.
Having taken control with a six-point lead entering the fourth, the Hornets took eight-point leads three times before Gordon spun on the baseline, was fouled and made two free throws at he 8:31 mark for a 75-65 margin.
However, Eric Bledsoe stole a pass and made a free throw, then sank a 3-pointer with 5:58 showing, bringing Los Angeles to 75-70. Gordon later made a 3-pointer that put the Hornets in good shape, 80-72.
However, that’s when the Clippers made their move. Paul drove baseline against Roberts. Then, after Gordon made one of two free throws, Crawford sank a big 3. A scramble play ensued on the Hornets’ end, and the Clippers came up with it, resulting in a layup by Barnes that cut the led to 81-79 with 3:33 left.
But Lopez tipped in his own miss seconds later. With the Clippers leading 86-85, Paul hit a pull-up 17-footer with 52.3 seconds left after Gordon had missed a shot over Barnes.
Bledsoe, who scored nine in the fourth, dunked a rebound wit 25.8 left, and it appeared over until Anderson sank the late 3 and Roberts followed with a long jumper to cut it to 92-90. But only 9.2 seconds left, and Paul was in the midst of his parade to the free throw line.
“I think we collectively get scattered when teams make a run,” Roberts said of his team failing to close once again. “In that fourth quarter, we didn’t panic, but we did get too jittery. I think going through this will help this young team in the future. We’ll be able to calm ourselves and get a good shot or good stop when we need to.”
The Hornets lost despite outscoring the Clippers 27-8 on second-chance points and outrebounding them 48-41.
They trailed 43-40 at halftime, wasting a yeoman effort by Lopez, who had 15 points and eight rebounds, with six of them offensive. However, they went 1-of-11 on 3-point attempts in shooting 41.5 percent and had the poor free-throw shooting as well.
Nonetheless, they fought back to take a 63-57 lead at the end of the third, much of it on the play of Roberts and Gordon’s nine points.