It goes without saying that one should get neither too upset about preseason losses nor too excited about preseason wins. It's still preseason after all, the games don't count, and the coaches are invariably trying things they would not try in the regular season. Nonetheless, you'd still rather look good, as the Clippers did Saturday/Sunday in Shanghai, than look bad, as they did Thursday in Beijing.
Why did they look so much better? The short answer is because Chris Paul made his preseason debut, and he makes a lot of things better for the Clippers. The team also played with much more energy and intensity, which may partly be attributable to Paul's presence as well -- just having him out there may have pumped up the rest of the team, not to mention that CP3 is going to get in your grill if you're not intense.
The coaches didn't push their starters very hard in this one. Dwyane Wade played just eight minutes, and the other four 2012 All Stars (LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Paul and Blake Griffin) all played between 20 and 22 minutes, so again it's not a measure -- at all -- of how the Clippers stack up against the NBA Champs. But there was plenty to like from the Clippers tonight. As we've been doing throughout the preseason, let's look at some of the positives and negatives from this third preseason game, the first Clippers preseason win.
- With each passing game, it's becoming apparent that DeAndre Jordan has indeed made major strides in his offensive game. It doesn't appear to be a fluke or a series of lucky bounces -- the guy is a much more effective player in the post, and could actually be a weapon this season. Jordan led all scorers in this one with 18 points, and had 13 of the Clippers first 26 points. He was 8 for 8 from the field, and by my count at least five of those field goals were post moves (as opposed to follows or assisted finishes). He would have been 10 for 10 had he not simply missed two Paul lobs that would have resulted in uncontested dunks. With the dearth of quality centers in the league, DeAndre could punish teams that try to go small -- it's not as if Chris Bosh is a slouch as a post defender, but he's not big enough to stop Jordan. Unfortunately he didn't look much better from the line, going 2 for 6, with as many airballs as makes.
- Paul looked good if not great. He barely looked to score, taking just two shots. But with him on the court the Clippers looked like a different team than the one we saw in Beijing on both ends of the court. The ball movement and spacing suddenly get better on offense, the rotations get crisper on defense. It's hard to explain why he impacts the entire team as much as he does, but he does.
- Eric Bledsoe went back to being an off the bench disrupter with Paul back in the starting lineup and it's a great role for him. He had three steals and two blocked shots in 26 minutes and can definitely give backup point guards fits this season. He lacked some control running the team, especially in a ragged fourth quarter, but he's going to be a force this season.
- The second unit Vinny Del Negro played tonight looked suspiciously like a glimpse into what he plans to do on the regular season. With Paul back, VDN left Willie Green in the starting lineup. Green will clearly fall to fourth guard when Chauncey Billups returns, but starting him now allows VDN to keep his second unit in tact (I'm not convinced it's a worthy goal, but that's the idea). The conventional wisdom would have Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Lamar Odom getting significant minutes off the bench, but if you're talking about a full five man bench unit, it's less clear who the fifth is. Tonight VDN went small, with Odom playing center and Matt Barnes in the first wave of backups playing the four. VDN has clearly liked what he's seen from Barnes in the preseason, and frankly what's not been to like? Rather than feel compelled to play a traditional big like Ronny Turiaf or Ryan Hollins, VDN may choose to go small with his second unit against most teams. That reserve unit had some mixed results in this game -- they were very effective in the second quarter, very sloppy in the ragged fourth -- but it seems like a winning combination.
- Odom was much better in this one, though he still has a ways to go. Within two minutes of his entry into the game we got a glimpse of what he can do as the Clippers third big when he threw two successful alley oops to Jordan. The Lakers, with Odom and Pau Gasol feeding each other and Andrew Bynum, were always incredible interior passers. A quick, instinctive high-low pass as the defender is adjusting his positioning is incredibly effective, but not easy to throw. Odom can make that play, and the Clippers have exactly the right players to be on the other end of those passes. Odom also made a couple of nice moves on offense, the best we've seen from his so far his preseason.
- Caron Butler continues to be silky smooth. He is playing effortless basketball right now, making everything look easy, and his shooting stroke looks better than ever. Del Negro has kept Caron's minutes down, partly because he's suddenly very deep on the wing, but Butler is looking like he could have a very solid season for the Clippers.
- Green on the other hand continues to struggle. The only good news at the two guard in this game was that Del Negro didn't allow it to go on too long, substituting Hill into the game pretty quickly in the first quarter and bringing Barnes in quickly in the third. Did he want to see those guys playing with the starters to try to get a feel for whether they should perhaps replace Green in the starting lineup until Billups' return? Hard to say, but if he's figured out that Green shouldn't be out there for long it's a least a step in the right direction.
The Clippers return to the states now to continue their preseason. Hopefully they won't be too worse for the wear after traveling halfway around the world. They did some good things in Shanghai and we'll see if they can build on that when they face Utah Wednesday night in STAPLES Center in their first home preseason game.