Saturdays of course, I tend to be Coach Steve instead of ClipperSteve, coaching the offspring on their AYSO teams. ClipperMax's team remains undefeated after a rousing 4-1 victory in Huntington Beach, while ClipperZoe and her teammates battled valiantly against the first place team in their division, finally succumbing 2-0.
Then I went and got sick, and spent all day Sunday in bed. So I assure you I wanted to post about the games, but it just didn't happen. Until now.
I did not get to listen to the Utah game, a 103-96 LA win, so all I have to go on is the box score pretty much. It was another come from behind victory - the team's third straight - and while it's only pre-season and the intensity level is way down for everyone, it's still pretty clear that you'd rather be learning how to win in the fourth quarter than how to lose in the fourth quarter.
From the box score, it looks like it was a pretty balanced attack for the Clippers, with Kaman, Griffin and Gordon each scoring 16, Baron contributing 10 and 9 assists. They also got some nice production off the bench from Kareem Rush (13 points in 14 minutes) and Craig Smith (12 in 18). Turnovers continue to be an issue, with 20 in this game. But one thing that is starkly different about this Clippers' team versus those of the recent past is the way they share the ball. Playing against Utah, a team that plays a movement and passing oriented style with a tradition of high assist rates, the Clippers actually assisted at a higher rate than the Jazz. LA recorded 29 assists on 36 field goals, while Utah had 24 assists on 34 field goals. Obviously, a basket counts the same whether it is assisted or not - but is it a coincidence that the Clippers are getting more assists, while shooting a higher percentage? Or is more ball movement leading to better shots? I think it's the latter.
The Clippers entered the fourth quarter against the Jazz down by three. Utah started the final quarter with Okur, Millsap, Brewer, Williams and rookie Eric Maynor on the floor - a pretty serious team. Led by Rush and Smith, the Clippers took the lead 82-81 with 8 and half minutes left and never trailed again. Again, let me emphasize that this is pre-season - Jerry Sloan may have started the quarter with some starters on the floor, but by the end it was Goran Suton, Alexander Johnson and Ronald Dupree, so he didn't seem to concerned with advancing to the finals of the Staples Center Shootout. But like I said, I'd rather win in the fourth than lose in the fourth. If winning is a habit, then maybe the team can develop the habit in pre-season.
Which leads us to Sunday night's meeting with the Lakers. There's really only so much you can glean from the box score without watching a game. I don't know what I would say about the Clippers' 114-105 loss to the Lakers had I not watched it. But having watched it, I have to say it was just a terribly lethargic affair. Maybe it was because both teams were playing on the second night of back to back games. Maybe it's strictly because it was pre-season. Maybe it's because I was sick and I didn't feel well, so everything else seemed off also. I don't know. But even as the Clippers built a first quarter lead of 33 to 22, I thought they looked mediocre at best. The Lakers were simply missing shots (they opened 1 for 11, which as far as I could tell had nothing to do with defense), and the Clippers happened to make some. But if you give Eric Gordon wide open threes, he's going to make them (three in the first quarter). It's nothing to get too excited about, because most of the time teams aren't going to leave him wide open.
Indeed, the Lakers started to play a little bit better, and the Clippers stayed at more or less the same level, and the game changed. I thought it was a very poorly officiated game, with a lot of questionable calls that tended to swing the momentum toward the Lakers at key moments. (My favorite was when they called an offensive foul on Griffin after Jordan Farmar had raised his hand. Everyone in the building knew who that foul was on, including Farmar.) But mostly the Clippers just didn't seem particularly motivated on defense, nor coherent on offense. I mean, how do you lose track of Adam Morrison at the three point line four times? He can't do a whole lot else, but he can stand still and shoot an open three. As for the offense, consider that Gordon, after opening 4 for 5 including those three wide open threes, went 2 for 6 the rest of the way, Kaman went 4 for 12, missing badly on several key trips in the fourth when it was still a game, and Griffin, although he was 6 for 9, did not score on a play called for him all night.
That left it up to Baron to penetrate and try to make things happen, which he did quite admirably, finishing with 16 points and 8 assists. Aside from Baron, about the only thing the Clippers had going after the first quarter was Craig Smith, who was simply outstanding with a team-high 26 points ni 22 minutes. He had the kind of game we've seen him have against the Clippers several times. He's so strong, but also surprisingly quick. He seems to be able to get to the rim with one dribble and just overpowers people when he gets there. He's going to be a real asset off the bench this season.
But it just wasn't enough, particularly while giving up quarters of 35, 26 and 31 points, mostly to the Lakers reserves. Speaking of the Lakers reserves, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Adam Morrison and Tony Gaffney combined to shoot 19 for 28, with 8 threes - an effective field goal percentage of 82%. That right there is a big clue that this was a pre-season game.
Griffin had the type of game I expect him to have in the first half of his rookie year. He still doesn't really have a 'move' to speak of. And matched up against Josh Powell and Ron Artest, he didn't have the significant physical advantage that he continually enjoyed in college. His baskets in the game consisted of a breakaway dunk after a steal, a fast break layup, a follow dunk, a put back, and two dunks on broken plays - not a single time did the Clippers come up the floor, call his number, and end up with a Griffin basket. Even so, from the beginning of the game, the Lakers choose to double him in the post, and he tallied three assists in the first quarter (including two of the wide open EJ three balls). He's an incredibly skillled passer for a guy his size, particularly for a 20 year old his size, and that will help him immensely. He's solid both passing to the perimeter out of the double (the Gordon threes) and also with clever interior passes (he found DJ inside for the jam as the defense was rotating to help).
He'll be a tremendous asset to the team, and quite productive, even as he's still learning the game. He can average 15 points and 10 rebounds a game on sheer athleticism and hustle - just like tonight, he'll score on fast breaks, catching lobs and getting offensive rebounds. But he'll also be working hard and developing those go to moves, and that 15 points per game is just going to go up from there. Plus, his versatility and defense simply begs for him to be on the floor. Where most rookies have trouble getting minutes, it's easy to imagine Griffin getting more minutes than any other Clipper big man (on a team with a crowded front court) simply because of his versatility. He can defend 3's, 4's or 5's - and MDsr raves about his defensive acumen, how he never misses a rotation. So he'll be on the floor.
It would have been nice to beat the Lakers, even if it is only pre-season. But we can take comfort in that fact as well - it is ONLY pre-season.