The Thunder were coming back with momentum on their side, Durant running his own personal fast break with a slam jam finish bringing the trailing OKC team to within four points, down 73 to 77, 7:56 remaining in the final period. The previously quite Ford Center was rocking - a crowd full of hope, dying for their team's third win of the season.
At this point, the "November" Clippers would have crumbled into turnovers, bad rushed jump shots, impossible threes and given up layups on defense. Another lead blown leading to another bad loss.
But this is the "December" Clippers. All those shiny big new minutes the rookie has been getting since the departure of Cuttino Mobley started to pay off.
Instead of his previous rookie attempts in clutch time (3 point attempts that were way off the mark) Eric Gordon did what I have been begging him (and Al Thornton) to do in these moments.
Take it to the rack.
When opponents steal away momentum and are looking to overtake or even pull away from you in the final quarter, I don't want to see contested jump shots. Sometimes I don't even want to see open jump shots (if there is a lane to be driven down.)
Get a layup. Maybe even get fouled. Give your team a breather while you MAKE your free throws and get your defense set as your opponents take the ball out of the net. That's how you stop momentum - maybe even steal it back.
And that is exactly what one 19 year old, stone faced rookie guard did. Eric Gordon dove down the lane, got the ball from a double teamed Randolph and got fouled hard by Weezy as he went up strong for a layup. He made both free throws, temporarily weakening the Thunder's momentum.
Then he did it again.
The next posession down, he got a pass at the top of the key. Without even thinking jump shot, he DROVE DOWN THE LANE, for an easy scoop shot - a beautiful two foot rainbow that swished through untouched. Momentum stolen.
Then he applied the dagger. The next trip down, he launched a 23 foot open-look jumper from the right side, toe barely on the line. 5:50 to go. Double digit lead re-established. Maybe not a killer stroke against a good team with that much time left. But taking away hope, with a ten point lead against a 2-23 OKC Blunder team, was like dirt on a coffin. They were done and it was written all over the Thunder players faces.
What's wrong with the Bench Players?
[In case you want to just skip to my bottom line answer, scroll down, (I won't be offended)...]
So here's my amateur couch coaching opinions on the poor production from the Clipper's bench.
From watching many many NBA basketball games I believe MOST bench players live off the confidence and attitudes of the starters. So when the starters are rocking, the bench guys come in and pour it on. They suddenly look like all stars because they have this inflated confidence given to them by the starters. But they are usually just par level players, playing way above their normal level of play because they are on a winning team with lots of confidence.
At the other end of the spectrum, if the starters are struggling or are not confident, MOST bench guys come in a little timid, afraid to take shots, afraid to make mistakes, afraid to get yanked by the coach after ten seconds, afraid of losing a lead. And most often with that type of attitude they lose leads or momentum, usually both. If they are being asked to actually make a comeback, it's almost predictable how things go.
Scenario One. The bench knows the game is over and the coach won't yank them so they start playing extremely freely, knowing they have nothing to lose. They have fun and go for every opportunity they see and suddenly they look very good. Maybe the other teams bench is even suckier so they look even better playing against them. Wow our bench guys are awesome! They regain the lead or get close only to get subbed out by the coach for the starters to come back and try to win it.
Scenario Two. The bench guys are suckier than the other teams bench and other than a few flashes of greatness they make little or no ground on a comeback and hang their heads in shame. Blown out.
The exceptions to the rule are the Sixth Man of the Year, "could be starting on some other team" type bench players. These guys don't need the starters to give them confidence. They have confidence pouring out their ears. They could miss 5 shots in a row and still jack up number 6 with no conscience. They don't care if the coach screams at them. They come into games, instantly ready to impose their will on the game - to spark a comeback or blow open a lead.
Unfortunately I don't think the Clippers have that kind of bench player - yet. Ricky Davis should be that kind of player. He could definitely be a starter on some other team, but we all know his health has not allowed him to be anywhere near his career numbers this year. So Clipper nation should just hope that he makes a full recovery and turns into a spark plug off the bench.
As for Taylor and Paul Davis - I believe they are slightly above par bench players. They can defend and are not one trick ponies. Taylor can steal/pass/slash/score and has decent range on his jumpshot. His downside is that he might take too many chances and turn the ball over. But turnovers are a part of life for a point guard - plus he's a rookie. Davis can block,steal,deflect,dunk and he has a fairly consistent mid range face up jumper. I also like that fact that he can eat around the offensive boards. You don't need to run plays for him to score or do something good for your team. His downside is that he can be beaten by quicker guys on defense.
I believe Hart, Collins and Skinner are simply average. They have the same talent as most benches in the NBA. Nothing special. Just serviceable guys that you don't expect anything out of other than to not hurt your team. Or for some guys - not hurt your team as badly as the other teams bench. The lesser of two evils.
Novak and Jordan are unfortunately sub par bench players in my opinion. Novak hasn't shown competency on defense and his offense seems to rely way too much on the 3 point shot. He seems fairly one dimensional in the limited minutes that I've watched him play. Jordan has also seemed lost or not up to NBA speed on defense and overly anxious to destroy the rim on every offensive possession.
So that being said, I think our bench guys need to get more confidence from the starters, so they can come in with more of a swagger and play up to or above their talent levels.
But why hasn't that happened on this 3 game win streak?
I believe it hasn't happened yet because, first and foremost you have a rookie and sophmore in the starting lineup. That's 40% of your starters that are not infusing confidence in the bench yet. They barely know what it feels like to be on a winning team. How can they pass along energy and confidence to the bench?
Once the Clippers really start rocking, piling up "w"s I think you can expect more production from the bench. If Gordon and Thornton can keep playing at a high level, the bench will get better. They might have a bad game here and there, but their general production should improve. If the bench continues to disappoint as the starters keep winning (hopefully above .500), then I think there should be concern at that time.