Again, oh so Clipper. But the team is playing well and the ball is certainly bouncing their way right now, as evidenced by Evans' potential game-winner, after his missed free throw, coming out of the hoop rather than going in.
My bad on not getting up a fresh thread and mediocre recap, as I had a houseful of happy, partying youth hanging around, none of whom seemed to be the type who care about the Clippers. So I went to bed with happy thoughts of another win, figuring I would get up in the morning and get things going here. 619 comments on the second half thread is a lot: bad timing for me, and again, apologies. But hey, it says something, right? Or as Ralph would put it:
Here come the Clippers!
It's pretty fun to watch something resembling the team that we thought the Clippers could be go out and win games. With 50 games still to go, it has already been a long strange Clipper trip of Waltonian proportions ("where would the Clippers be without Ike Diogu?"). The 1-13 start and injuries to Davis and Kaman sent things in a nasty direction, and the schedule was bad enough. But there were silver linings aplenty in the dark march to 20 losses in 25 games, and now that there are new wrinkles and guys are coming back, the benefits of early adversity are starting to show themselves.
As for this particular game, it was a bad trap and the Clippers did all sorts of things to fall into it. It's hard to figure the equation for going on the road on a back to back and playing at the level of a desperate, lesser team, but the Clippers cut it all too close once again. They don't seem to be able to sustain the pressure to gain a double digit lead in the 4th quarter and then hold onto it. But one thing that they have been doing is making plays in the crucial stretch from 8 minutes to go up to the home stretch inside of 3 minutes, giving them an advantage and allowing them to play from ahead. Inside of 3 minutes, it's all seatbelts all the time. How about that Ryan Gomes play? Sheesh. Gomes followed up a horrible crunchtime miscue the day before when he passed up an open shot against Phoenix by doing something much, much worse, failing to foul Tyreke Evans on the dribble. But hey, all's well that ends well, and one of the silver linings is that Al-Farouk Aminu continues on a nicely steady rookie upswing, well ahead of any schedule we might have set for him, so the Clippers have an emerging answer to any Gomes shortcomings. Aminu played 31 minutes to Gomes' 17, which is excellent, and Gomes has shown that he can hit shots and have good games. This wasn't one of them.
The Clippers woke up the Kings. But apparently the desperate Kings have been stirring fitfully from their ongoing horrendous slumber in the 4th quarter in a number of games during their string of absolute futility. The Clips let Tyreke Evans get untracked, and Eric Gordon wasn't able to negate him as he had in the two prior meetings. It helped that the Kings had Udrih hitting shots, Garcia and then Casspi making 3s, and Evans just joined in. As Mike Smith pointed out, the combination of 3 point makes and Clipper turnovers was nearly deadly. The Kings know that their good chances for wins will be relatively few, and they hung in the game. But when you're a bad team and things aren't going your way, you can't even help yourself, and that's what happened to the Kings in this game. They hit enough shots and got Evans going and played well enough to grab a win, but the ball bounced out. The thing is, the Kings couldn't play a whole lot better, although they might have better big man matchups and get more out of Landry, Cousins, and Dalembert than they did in this one. It is going to be very tough for them to get to 20 wins this season. More than tough: probably impossible. SP called it, with their easy schedule in the first five games. Their futility over the last six weeks is much worse than anything the Clippers went through.
But enough about the Kings. Your Los Angeles Clippers don't care if the victories are pretty right now. Wins are wins. They know that they're playing well and earning them, one way or another. And there's still lots of room for improvement. They have stars, they have solid guys, they have role players. Their defense is improved, they're rebounding the ball, they're getting good offensive flow and hitting shots. They're starting games well, seem to be avoiding horrible droughts, and they're battling all the way through to the end of games. They're turning the ball over too much, and there are all sorts of execution points that could be improved, but the team is ending the year by gaining strength and confidence.
They're also one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch, which is not a small point. It's because of Blake Griffin, of course. It's really kind of sad and unfortunate, in the best possible way, that "poor" Eric Gordon can be spectacular and still have to take a backseat to Griffin, but that's the way it goes. Griffin is doing all sorts of amazing things, and he makes the spectacular almost routine. His first quarters are must-watch NBA basketball right now, and the rest of the game is far from shabby. His numbers are obviously veering steadily towards the gaudy, and he's always threatening to go on an even more monstrous run. The fun part, 32 games in, are the smaller things that get added to the attack. The first of these, this week, is the Grab the Rebound Run Out. Griffin is getting more confident with his ball-handling in every game. But the GtRRO (?) is a fearsome weapon, scary to see in practice. In it, Griffin's rebounding strength is combined with his speed and ball-handling to create an instant fast break. Guards do it frequently enough, but they don't get 12+ rebounds a game. LeBron can do it, but again, he doesn't get as many rebounds. Lamar Odom is one of the best at it, and he has turned into a really good rebounder since his long ago Clipper days. But he doesn't have the speed and intensity of Griffin. It'll be interesting to see how Griffin's GtRRO develops, but he seems to be just starting to get comfortable with it.
And the GtRRO is only one thing. Even better is hitting big 4th quarter shots, in that 8-to-3 minutes section I mentioned earlier. He did it against the Suns when the game was tied in the first half of the 4th, starting the run that got the Clips a 9 point lead, and he did it against the Kings as well, burying a shot to end a drought and put the Clips in the lead. Griffin is making the plays of a confident leader.
Another item is that he has been so good for so long now (lots of pub for the double-double streak: say hello Michael Cage!) that he's not just getting attention, but getting calls. We'll see if the trend continues in tough games, but the officials seem to be watching the defense against Griffin pretty carefully. He's working so hard and involved in so many plays that he has to get some calls, and the first round of rookie hazing seems to be more or less complete. It's not okay to mug Blake Griffin routinely anymore. The hard foul in the air by Dalembert (I think) on the long BD pass tipped into a flagrant, which was nice to see, especially on the road. What goes along with getting calls is hitting free throws, and the next step for Griffin is to tip that number above 60% and then stay after it to get to 65%. That will take awhile, but there are a lot of points to be had at the line, and the Clips need as many of them as possible.
See what I said about Eric Griffin? Anybody still zhiving along here? Four threes against Phoenix, followed by six last night. His shot looks relaxed and, well, perfect. And we knew that Gordon was already having an extraordinary, gigantic All-Star level season, and that was with virtually one hand tied behind his back, as his shot wasn't falling. The difference, which Gordon seemed to be aware of in postgame interviews, is that his rate of shooting free throws has slowed down. Believe me, we'll all take the perfect stroke from deep and the gaudy numbers that go along with it. I can't wait to dig into the progress of statistical progress of the Rose-Gordon-Westbrook triumvirate, which I haven't looked at in a few weeks.
Another thing that was nice to see in this game was the way that Baron Davis was trying to calmly set up all Eric Gordon, all the time down the stretch, with some Blake Griffin thrown in. BD deferring completely to Gordon as the Clippers 4th quarter engine and closer is a major step forward for the team, and for Gordon.
And that's just the start of the Baron Davis element of the discussion, to which we might add the return of Randy Foye and the intricacies of the Clipper guard and wing rotation. This Sacramento game added a new tiny wrinkle, a couple of minutes for Rasual Butler with Foye at PG, with Bledsoe, who didn't shoot well in this game, shortening his stint just a bit. Davis is far and away the best passer on the Clippers, and it's fun to watch him play with Griffin and Jordan, and he's doing a good job of running plays that get the ball to Gordon too. And in this game he was getting into the paint with ease against Udrih, getting into double-figure scoring in the first half, then he got his 9 assists for the game. BD needs to play within himself and get his 10-15 points and try to make those passes to get towards the double figure assist territory, and just stick to the aging point guard game. Less minutes is probably a good thing, given the early season knee issues, and VDN has him on a fairly short first quarter leash, as Bledsoe came in with 4 minutes to go against Phoenix, and it was 5 against the Kings. Bledsoe's speed works well and it's good to get him minutes and the rotation moving, but the drop off on the passing and turnover side is a bit too obvious at this point. The rotation is in a lot better shape, however, than the foul trouble and inexplicable 2nd quarter absence of Gordon in the Houston game, the Clippers only loss in the last two weeks. Bledsoe is good, Foye is good, BD and Gordon are looking relatively formidable together and getting better each game. Butler is the odd man out, but my guess is that he's going to hit shots and make the most of minutes when he gets the chance to play. And believe me, the Clippers as a team where Rasual Butler and Brian Cook (when he comes back) get DNPs is a good thing.
DeAndre Jordan is not to be forgotten. Our big, sweet boy is making himself some money with all of these minutes and his steady play, no? DJ will be just fine as part of the mix when the U23 team is U27-28. He might even be able to make free throws by then. Eight points and 6 rebounds in 33 minutes is a bit below his recent output, but they're good numbers, especially when you factor in the exact same numbers, in 22 minutes, from our newest bestest big man buddy.
Where would the Clippers be without Ike Diogu? The reference, for newer Clipper fans, is to the inimitable Redhead's refrain back in the Golden Age of Lawler-Walton: "Where would the Clippers be without Sean Rooks?" Diogu played really well against the Kings, and he is an intriguing addition to the roster. 16 points and 12 rebounds from Jordan-Diogu was a critical part of the win. The thing about Diogu is that he's so different from Craig Smith and Brian Cook. If Blake Griffin is going to slide over to center when Jordan (or Kaman) goes to the bench, Cook spreads the floor and hits 3s and has been better than we skeptically thought, and Craig Smith steadily manufactures points in the paint. But neither of them is a classic PF who is a rebounder first, with some post moves. Diogu seems to show no ill effects from his microfracture surgery, and he is looking to be an exciting find on the scrapheap.
Guys like Diogu, and Bledsoe, Jordan, Cook, and even Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, start to look a lot better when they're playing with a star like Blake Griffin and the team is competing and getting wins. It took 25 games for the Clippers to get to 5 wins, then they lost 4 straight. Now they've jumped to 10 wins over the last 6 games. How many games will it take them to get to 20? Less is more.