I did not see that coming.
Let's face it, after the way the Clippers played on Monday, the prospects were not good for the team entering another game without their top two scorers (that's their top two scorers after you take away their real top scorer). And Al Thornton, fresh from a trip to the hospital with the stomach flu and battling dehydration, figured to be as much of a non-factor as he was against Charlotte where he was hampered with foul trouble.
Shows what I know.
Maybe he had a chip on his shoulder about his Rookie game snub (which looks much snubbier today than it did yesterday). Maybe it was just one of those games where a guy has to fight through adversity and finds the focus to excel. Whatever the reason, in a game where the Clippers only used 8 of their 9 dressed players, Al Thornton scored over a third of the teams points to carry them to victory. For good measure, he also got the blocked shot that finally sealed the victory in the final seconds after the Clippers gave back all but 3 of a 20 point lead.
It was an interesting game. The graybeards had solid, if unspectacular games. Sam Cassell (in his 15th season) and Tim Thomas (11th season) had 14 points each. Cat Mobley (10th season) had 12 and Aaron Williams (14th season) had his best game of the season with 8 points in 33 minutes. Brevin Knight (11th season) had 7 assists and was a team best +22 in only 23 minutes.
But it was a rookie who was the difference. (By the way, this is a great example of where plus/minus stats can be deceiving. Brevin Knight happened to enter the game with Al Thornton most of the night.) He scored go to the basket (his first hoop was baseline drive for a dunk and his last was a drive through the lane for the and-one). He scored on jump shots. He scored on three pointers (2 for 4). And in almost every case, he had to create the shot himself. It was not a subtle 33. It was an in your face 33. When you're sitting on 24 in the third quarter, and your career-high is 25, and you get a steal and a dunk over the NBA's second-leading shot blocker - well, people tend to notice that sort of thing.
The 33 points is more than any rookie has scored this season outside of Kevin Durant who has twice scored 35. His season scoring average is up to 9.2, 4th best among rookies. And while many rookies are hitting the wall and seeing their scoring and efficiency decrease, Thornton is trending the opposite way. November - 6.3 points on 34.2% shooting. December - 8.1 points on 41.8%. January - 13.2 points on 49.6%. That's over 20 points per 40 minutes in January while shooting almost 50%. These aren't just good numbers for a rookie - these are good numbers. In fact, he is the team's second leading scorer on a per minute basis in January - behind only the red-hot Maggette, and ahead of the red-hot Tim Thomas.
There's obviously still plenty to work on. His rebounding is not good (3.4 per game), and unfortunately not improving. Two rebounds last night, with Kaman and Maggette out of the lineup, is not enough. In fact, he's only had 5 rebounds in his last 4 games. He needs to look for his teammates more, especially as he begins to draw more attention from defenders. He did have a career high 5 assists on Monday, and he's starting to do better, but that's only because the bar was so low - until January 6th his career high was one. His defense is improving, although it has a distance to go yet. I believe he'll be a good defender because of his tenacity. He doesn't give up on plays, and that's a big part of winning the battle on defense. But he still gets lost on rotations too frequently.
And while we're nitpicking, I suppose you have to be concerned with the team getting outscored 19-2 in a crucial 5 minutes of play. It was a strange, slow motion collapse. Aaron Williams missed an uncontested dunk that would have made the lead 22, and then the lead began to disappear. It had been so large that nobody seemed to care or notice for a while. The Clippers did not make a field goal in the final 6 minutes of the game (how many times do you win a game where that happens?) and turned the ball over four times. Cat Mobley missed 3 layups, not to mention the Williams dunk, during their 0 for 7 finish. On defense, they were in the NFL prevent - they didn't want to foul, and consequently made it way too easy for the Hawks to get to the rim, resulting in 4 dunks and 4 layups on Atlanta's final 8 baskets. Still, with a 20 point lead, a let down of sorts is understandable, and if they'd only made their own layups, the lead would have remained at double digits. The near-collapse was ugly - but credit them with building a lead big enough to hold up.
But enough negative. The Charlotte game was the worst case scenario of a depleted team. The promising rookie got in foul trouble, the veterans played fine on offense but phoned in the defense and the team lost a lackluster game. This was the best case. The rookie had a break out game under adverse conditions given the opportunity to be the featured scorer, his energy rubbed off on the others, and the team won an exciting game.
The Rookie game snub is behind him. But first team All Rookie may be ahead.