All kidding aside as regards a possible tank job this season, I think one has to recognize that the Generic Clippers are a decent team when they have been healthy. We've discussed before the fact that they have no margin for error without Brand. If you subscribe to that theory, then it's not really that surprising that the team is 7-19 in the 26 games they've played with a third significant player joining Brand and Livingston on the sideline.
Sam Cassell returned to the lineup Dec. 22. Tim Thomas returned Jan. 6. The last 4 games are the longest stretch this season the Clippers have played with Kaman, Thomas, Maggette, Mobley and Cassell in the lineup. In those four games they have been in a position to beat the Spurs, Magic and Mavs, and finally broke through against the Suns.
It's not really rocket science with this team. They are the ninth best team in the league in terms of defensive efficiency. Unfortunately, they are also the worst team in terms of offensive efficiency. Those offensive efficiency numbers are impacted significantly by the 26 (out of 34) games they've played without not one, not two, but three or more of their top seven scorers.
They tend to play good defense night in and night out. (By the way, Brand is their best low post defender and a top ten shot blocker - Livingston is their best perimeter defender. They could be scary good if they can put it all together when those guys get back.) But they rarely score enough points to win games, despite the outstanding defense.
Enter Sam Cassell.
After making 3 of 23 shots against in the first three games of 2008, Sam absolutely went off tonight against the Suns (he really likes playing against these guys). He shot 15 for 21, and ended up with 34 points. He came within a nanosecond of being 16 for 22 when his first half buzzer beater wasn't. He seemed to make everything he put up. For the few moments the Suns had Nash on him, he went crazy. But he scored over Marion, he scored over Bell, he scored over Diaw. You hear about guys scoring with 'a hand in his face.' Well, one replay shows the 6'9" Diaw with A HAND LITERALLY IN SAM'S FACE, to the point where I have no idea how he even saw the basket. And the shot went in. And as for the tanking plan, this was a nice showcase for playoff teams looking for a scoring point guard. Cassell may have just played the Clippers into an extra draft pick in whatever deal they end up making.
With Sam leading the way, the Clippers shot 52.5%, their second consecutive game over 50% after not reaching that level in the first 32. Take away Chris Kaman (3 for 14) and Quinton Ross (0 for 4) and the rest of the team was 39 for 62, 63%. That's pretty good.
The Suns did not look particularly good. Sure, Amare Stoudemire got his usual 29 against the Clippers. But when Kaman stopped spacing out on the pick and roll, nothing much came easy. And their lack of depth really killed them tonight. If either Stoudemire (+3 for the night) or Nash (+12) was out, their offense ground to a halt. Marcus Banks was an astounding -15 in a little over 7 minutes of court time. That ain't easy. Add in the fact that D'Antoni benched Barbosa for his total lack of defense (he ended up playing 23 minutes) and all five Suns starters ended up playing over 35 minutes. That's just nuts.
Amazingly, the Clippers did not succumb to a Suns fourth quarter run. Clutch buckets by Cassell and Mobley down the stretch kept Phoenix at bay.
Some other observations:
- Ralph and Mike are blaming it on the bad ankle, but it's pretty clear what happened to Kaman tonight. It was the return of Mr. Flippy. He just didn't finish strong around the basket, and that's why he was 3 for 14. With the new information regarding Chris' brainwaves, it's tempting to overanalyze his every move. But if the neurofeedback therapy is helping him slow down his thought processes so that the game then slows down, then isn't it interesting that he seemed to revert to Kaman 1.0 against the revved up Suns? The Amare/Nash pick and roll won't let him slow down. At any rate, many of his bad habits from last season re-emerged today. When he took his eye off an inbounds pass with 30 seconds left and a 6 point lead (that had been 10), for a moment I thought the Clippers had actually found a way to lose this game. On the plus side, he did a solid job on the boards with 18, which helped the Clippers to a 47-36 advantage there. And let's face it. The Suns are tough on a lot of big men.
- I'm a big fan of Q Ross, but I'm convinced that he's a liability against the Suns. I know, I know, he was a 20 point per game scorer in college and he's had some of his best scoring games against Phoenix. I get that. But if you're running your offense through Q Ross, then everyone is out of their comfort zone. That's just not what the Clippers are used to. He looked just awful on every offensive touch tonight, either missing shots or dropping the ball. Yes, he does a better job on Nash than anyone else. But look at it this way - the dropoff in defense of Mobley on Nash is smaller than the increase on offense when you force Nash to guard Mobley. So, ironically, the Suns are the one team where you don't want to play your defensive stopper.
- Man is Corey Maggette a bad passer. He threw a bounce pass on the pick and roll to Kaman that was just absurd. He does a lot of nice things on the basketball court, but he has no feel for passing at all.
- Sam Cassell, on the other hand, is one of the few Clipper players who is a very good passer. He had several very pretty assists to Maggette in the game (who worked hard for post position throughout). But the pass of the night was Cassell to Tim Thomas - Thomas had Diaw on his right hip, and as the ball swung, Cassell put the ball right into Thomas' left hand and led him right into a dunk. It was something that Clipper passes rarely are - timely.
It's nice to finally get another win against a good team. And though I'm not thrilled to help the Lakers into first place in the Conference, you have to take the good with the bad.