The most memorable Clippers game of 2010 wasn't their defeat of the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 1, a victory that ended a league-high 18-game winning streak the Spurs had enjoyed over the Clippers. It wasn't their Nov. 22 win over the Hornets at a time when New Orleans had the best record in the league and the Clippers had the worst record. It wasn't their Dec. 8 win over the Lakers, only because Derek Fisher's running layup beat the buzzer and the Clippers didn't actually win that game.
Unfortunately, the most memorable and significant Clippers' game of 2010 occurred way back on Jan. 12 in Memphis.
The Clippers were 17-18 as they headed to Tennessee. They had just swept all four games of a home stand that included wins over the Lakers, Heat and Trailblazers, all by double digit margins. They had not reached the .500 mark at any point in the season, but as they neared the midway point, they were finally on the brink of doing so. The mission at the time was to hold down the fort until first overall pick Blake Griffin could make his NBA debut. He'd sustained a knee injury directly prior to the beginning of the regular season, an injury that was originally supposed to keep him out for six weeks. Now more than ten weeks later, Griffin still hadn't played, but the feeling was it couldn't be much longer. The team had accomplished its goal to that point. They had hovered around .500, and were in a position to make a playoff push with Griffin, if indeed he was as good as everyone hoped.
Prior to the start of the Grizzlies game, they got some very bad news; leading scorer Chris Kaman, who had been on an absolute tear, tweaked his back in warmups and was a last minute scratch. After one quarter, the news got even worse when leading rebounder and general front court stalwart Marcus Camby succumbed to a stomach virus and left the game, not to return. Suddenly the Clippers were without their starting bigs in an important road game. It didn't augur well.
But Baron Davis played brilliantly in perhaps his best performance as a Clipper, and DeAndre Jordan was an absolute beast stepping in for Kaman. Behind Davis and Jordan, the team jumped out to a big lead early at 15-3 and maintained it through three quarters. Then, with 47.8 seconds remaining in the third, the warning lights starting flashing - literally.
The 11,000 fans in the FedEx Forum, the broadcasters, and the players were instructed to evacuate the building as Baron stood at the free throw line waiting to take the second of two free throws. No one knew why at the time - they were just told to evacuate. With nowhere else to go, the Clippers retreated to their ice cold bus on an ice cold night in the dead of winter in Memphis.
In the end, the problem was a broken water main in the building's fire sprinkler system which had triggered an alarm. After a 36 minute delay, the game was resumed. Unfortunately, the Clippers had gone ice cold sitting in the ice cold, and were unable to regain the earlier form that had kept them in control the entire game. Memphis outscored the Clippers 27-12 after play was resumed, 25 to 12 in the fourth quarter.
In the end, Baron finished with a triple double of 27 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, and Jordan scored 23 on 9 of 11 shooting. But it wasn't enough as the Grizzlies pulled out the two point victory and LA saw it's chance to climb back to the .500 mark washed away with the fire sprinklers.
If the story ended there, it would be just another Clipper loss. A particularly tough one no doubt, and one that might make you believe in curses, if you were already inclined to do so. After all, if a team is behind and playing poorly, many times the coach will call a timeout to try to change the momentum. Essentially, the evacuation amounted to a 36 minute timeout, and boy did it change the momentum. The Grizzlies took advantage by re-emerging with renewed energy which the Clippers couldn't match.
But the story doesn't end there. On the team flight to their next game in New Orleans, the Clippers learned that Griffin would undergo surgery on his still not healed knee and would miss the entire season. Suddenly the team realized that the cavalry was not on the way. Griffin was not going to swoop in and carry the team to the playoffs in the second half of the season. In the course of 24 hours, they went from a team who thought they were doing great to get back to .500 in advance of the return of their future star, to a team that was holding down the fort for re-inforcements that weren't coming.
The rest of the season was an unmitigated disaster. The Clippers were 17-18 (.486 winning percentage) prior to the Memphis game. They were 12-35 (.255) the rest of the way. They replaced coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. with interim coach Kim Hughes, fired Dunleavy as GM, traded Camby, traded Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair - and the players stopped trying.
What's fascinating, with the benefit of hindsight, is that Griffin really is that good. He really would have made a major difference for the team, and if they had been around .500 and he had returned, they really might have made a playoff push. But the combination of factors seemed to be too much for the fragile team psyche.
It's ridiculous to suggest that had that pipe not burst the Clippers' season would have turned out differently - after all, the fact that Griffin missed the entire season was the more significant setback. But it's unlikely that you will ever find a more specific turning point in a season - from a 13 point lead on the brink of reaching .500, to a devastating loss and losing three-fourths of their games the rest of the way. And it started with a broken pipe.
Why is this the game of 2010? Because it pretty well sums up a calendar year in which the Clippers lost 57 games and won only 23. The future looks much brighter with the emergence of Blake Griffin and advancement of Eric Gordon, and perhaps in retrospect we'll realize that some other game was the real moment of truth - perhaps the game of the year was Blake's NBA debut. But we'll have to wait until 2011 to find out how that story ends.