OK, there are some little anecdotes about today and this game that I have to share up front.
Yes, today is my birthday, a fact that is significantly more public in the age of Facebook. As an aside to the aside, isn't it funny the people that wish you happy birthday on Facebook? It says much more about that person's relationship to Facebook than it does about your relationship with that person. I got some nice birthday wishes from people that are really close friends, and of course from all my college age nieces (though my slacker nephew was noticeably missing, I'm talking to you Jacob Perrin!). But then I got birthday greetings from people I haven't seen in 20 or even 30 years, and I got three from people I literally don't know. I mean, I can guess how I know them from mutual friends on Facebook, but I honestly don't remember the name or have any clue who they might be. So there's that. It's not a bad thing, just interesting.
As I mentioned in a comment on the preview, I'm also battling a cold. I got up this morning to get the kids off to school and then went back to bed... until 3 PM. I was hurting last night when I wrote the preview and the piece on Blake Griffin for SBNation LA, so I simply forgot to create the game thread. Quite clever of you all to make do with the preview thread, and thanks to Citizen Zhiv for posting a celebratory thread at the conclusion of the game.
The game itself was a little off-kilter because of the absence of Ralph Lawler, who got stuck in a traffic on the way to the game. In Ralph's absence, Mike Smith slid over to the play-by-play chair and Don MacLean took on the role of color analyst. If I recall correctly, it is only the second game that Ralph has missed in the history of the Clippers, and the first was last year when he was suspended for a game over the Hamad Haddadi remarks.
As if in protest, the audio went out on my feed for most of the second half. I can see from the comments that I wasn't the only one who had this issue. It looks like it was a Verizon FiOS/Prime Ticket problem. All I can say is, Mike Smith is no Ralph Lawler when it comes to play-by-play, but that's no reason to mute him FiOS!
On to the game itself. The Clippers now have 4 wins on the season, and half of them have come against teams that had the best record in the NBA at the time. How bizarre is that? Add in their win over the now 13-6 Thunder, and the Clippers have three victories over teams at least seven games over .500. I think it's pretty clear that they are capable of winning games, but they do need to continue to learn how to win games. But here's a fun fact - the Clippers record against teams currently over .500 is now 3 - 9; Miami's record against winning teams is 1 - 7.
The strange thing is that while you would think the Clippers would need to play a near-perfect game to beat the Spurs, they did many, MANY things wrong in this game. The Clippers turned the ball over 20 times, to only 8 for the Spurs, they missed half of their 18 free throws (including six straight misses in the fourth quarter), and they allowed the Spurs to get 18 offensive rebounds. The turnovers and offensive rebounds resulted in 15 more shots for the Spurs, which is very difficult to overcome in most cases.
(Let's take the time to look at the offensive rebounds for a moment. The Spurs shot a horrendous percentage from the field, making less than 36% of their shots. More Spurs misses means more chances to get an offensive rebound. The Clippers got 38 defensive boards to the Spurs 18 offensive boards, which means that on a Spurs miss, the Clippers got the rebound a little more than two-thirds of the time, which is pretty close to the league average. On the other end, the Spurs got 25 defensive rebounds and the Clippers got 12 offensive rebounds, so the Clippers offensive rebound percentage was actually a little higher than that of the Spurs. In other words, the Clippers did fine on the glass, and the numbers are almost entirely a symptom of the large number of San Antonio misses.)
So while the Clippers were far from flawless in this game, the Spurs were just much, much worse. I think you can credit the Clipper defense with a good portion of that, as they were active and energetic. For instance, they blocked nine shots and contested many others. But it can also be said that the Spurs were less than sharp.
The Spurs infamous big three was a big zero tonight. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker combined to shoot just 8 for 29 from the field, and Ginobili was 1 for 6 from three. Parker, mysteriously and without explanation, played just 18 minutes in the game, and went to the bench 2 and a half minutes into the second half, where he remained the rest of the night. Maybe they were all tired after playing in Oakland last night. It was, as it happens, their first road back to back of the season, and it was also the first time this season they've played three straight road games. (Must be nice.)
Meanwhile, the Clippers suddenly have a big two of their own, and whereas the San Antonio big three has an average age of 32, the Clippers big two are both 21 years old. Blake Griffin entered the game averaging 30 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists over his last 5 games. He went for 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists, and was no doubt disappointed with himself for slacking on that missing rebound and assist. He made 14 of his 21 shots from the floor. It feels like Griffin is at a different level at this point. He's so athletic, yet so skilled, that he makes plays you simply don't expect him, or really anyone, to be able to make. Two non-dunks in particular stood out in this game. In the first quarter, he slipped and was falling down as he shot, and he still made the basket. It was the most literal fallaway I've ever seen. Later, in the third quarter, as he cut through the lane, Ginobili grabbed his arm, actually knocking his arm off the ball, but Griffin was able to regain control, get his bearings, and get the shot up for the and one. These are not good plays... for a rookie, or good plays... for a guy his size. There are no caveats on some of the things he does. The guy can flat out play basketball, and is WAY ahead of where I thought he was from an offensive standpoint. The way he's playing right now, it's hard to imagine anyone keeping him under 20 the rest of the season.
Eric Gordon entered the game fifth in the NBA in scoring at a little over 24 points a game and scored 21. He's been an uncannily consistent scorer this season, with only one game out of 17 where he's scored less than 19. He made 2 of 5 three pointers, shooting better than 40% from deep for the second consecutive game. He's yet to have a great shooting game from deep, a 5 for 6 type game, but he's showing signs of at least being out of the slump, which is very good news.
But the big news for the Clippers tonight was really the return of Baron Davis. There are plenty of Baron Davis haters out there, and even a fair number of them among the citizens of Clips Nation. Baron can certainly be frustrating, but I just have never been able to fathom how people can miss the simple fact that the Clippers are better with him in the lineup. Within 45 seconds of checking into the game, Baron threw a lob pass to Blake that drew a foul (and inexplicably did not result in free throws, a runner up for bizarre whistle of the game). A minute later, he got his first assist, hitting Griffin on the trail of a fast break for a massive dunk. If you didn't notice at the time and you've got the game on the DVR still, go back and watch that play in real time. Immediately upon making the pass, Baron can be heard screaming "Oh yeah!" because he knows what's about to happen. The Clippers got four straight baskets off of Baron Davis passes, consisting of three dunks and a layup. The final assist of the group was a lob to Griffin from midway between the three point line and half court. Easy baskets are the mother's milk of any NBA team, and suddenly the Clippers were getting easy baskets with Baron on the floor.
The game turned during an 18-2 Clippers run to close out the first half (how bizarre is that - the Clippers closing a half strong against a good team?) Baron was on the floor for most of that run. It certainly helped that they were making shots - they made eight out of their last nine, and five of them were three pointers. But once again they were all good looks - all the threes were wide open, and all eight of their baskets were assisted on, the first three by Baron. The spacing and the ball movement are simply better with Baron in the game.
Did he take some bad shots? I counted one in this game, and even it was with the shot clock at 4. He did look a little rusty at times. Twice he threw lobs that were (a) too ambitious and (b) not even close to their target, and that accounted for half of his four turnovers. But for a return to the lineup after essentially being out of basketball for a month, it was impressive.
Think about this: Blake Griffin has yet to play a regular season game with a Baron Davis at 100%. It happened briefly in the 2009 pre-season, which you may or may not recall went pretty well for the LAC. In the 2010 pre-season, Baron's minutes were limited, but still the chemistry between Davis and Griffin was palpable. In the first four games in which Davis played this season, he was clearly not anywhere close to right physically, so we haven't seen them together in top form yet. When we do, it could be something special. Take that first assist and dunk in this game - Baron is screaming in excitement before Griffin has even dunked, and he was just the passer. Baron is just as happy on the court making the pass as he is making the shot, perhaps happier. The combination of a great passer like Davis and a great finisher like Griffin could be amazing, and I think we've only scratched the surface.
Obviously lots to write about from this game. I think I'll save some for further discussion tomorrow.
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: OK, so I added this feature after the last game, and was immediately a little worried that perhaps it would be difficult to find good candidates every night. As it happens, there was no shortage tonight. Having Violet Palmer out there doesn't hurt.
Second runner up goes to Violet herself for bizarrely and emphatically signaling Spurs possession on a ball fumbled out of bounds by Tiago Splitter with no one else around. Now, sometimes you get crossed up and just point the wrong way, but Violet seemed determined to stand by her call before being overruled by the other officials on the floor.
First runner up goes to the aforementioned lob pass to Blake Griffin. I honestly don't know what the NBA's official stance is on this type of play, and I know that it's come up before this season (it's going to come up a lot, since Blake Griffin is going to be flying through the air a lot and getting fouled a lot). It clearly SHOULD be considered a shooting fool if the spirit of the law is to award free throws when a foul interferes with the opportunity to score a basket. The letter of the law may indicate this is a loose ball foul, because the ball is literally loose. My biggest concern is that it is inconsistent, to the point that I have no idea based on observation how the refs are going to call it from one moment to the next.
The hand's down winner though comes from early in the fourth quarter, and it's an absolute head-scratcher. With Eric Gordon at the line for one shot, Matt Bonner gets tangled up with a Clipper during the box out, and the whistle blows while the ball is bouncing on the rim. The ball falls through, and the officiating crew is suddenly completely lost as to what happens next, as if someone had handed striped shirts and whistles to three random fans as they entered Staples Center for the game. The proper result on a defensive foul off the ball simultaneous to a made shot is a single free throw for the person on whom the foul was committed. After a long discussion, the officials indicated that the foul is on Ryan Gomes of the Clippers and the Spurs take the ball in from out of bounds.
There are only just a few, really minor problems with this. Nitpicks really. Trifling matters, hardly worth mentioning, but since we've gone this far, oh, I guess I'll point them out.
1) What the hell took so long? Loose ball foul on the shooting team on a made shot, the shot counts, ball out of bounds to the defending team, done. Not difficult, not unusual, what are we debating?
2) Bonner locks arms with the Clipper on the box out and is clearly holding him. There's some jostling going on, but stuff that's pretty much par for the course on every NBA rebound. Everyone in the building, including Bonner, thinks the foul is on him. It's one thing to delay the game to discuss a call - but please get it right in the end.
3) Ryan Gomes wasn't even in the neighborhood. It was Craig Smith battling with Bonner for position. Gomes happens to have the same uniform number as Bonner, which seemed significant to Smith and MacLean (I had to get this from the closed captions since I had no audio on the play). But Gomes was standing by the three point line not touching anyone on the play.
In the end, I have no idea how this call spun so badly out of control. It was as if the fact that the free throw went in really threw the crew for a loop. Like they were expecting it to roll out, and they knew what they'd do in that case, but when it went in they had second thoughts. "Do we really want to give the Clippers a four point play on the first possession of the fourth quarter? We're not usually here to help the Clippers win." If the foul was on Smith, it's easy - call the foul, ball out of bounds. One just got the impression that they were discussing some way to save face, an impression that is re-inforced by the fact that they ended up assigning the foul to a player who wasn't even in the vicinity. They had completely forgotten what actually happened, and were just looking for a way out.