Here are some belated thoughts on the Los Angeles Clippers' pre-season win in Phoenix last night against the Suns. Sorry to be a bit tardy, but hey, it's just pre-season. Which appeared to be the Clippers' attitude for much of the second half as well.
After letting five of his top eight players rest on Monday in Sacramento, coach Doc Rivers came back with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan in Phoenix. That still left Blake Griffin (ankle), J.J. Redick (thigh), Matt Barnes (shin), and Reggie Bullock (knee) representing the "minor injuries to some part of the leg" coalition. In previous pre-season wins in Portland and Utah, the Clippers starters had far outclassed their opponents, and during the first half Tuesday it seemed it would once again be the case, even without Griffin on this night.
Paul in particular appeared to be in mid-season form. In his two earlier pre-season appearances he was terrific, but appeared to be in "orchestration" mode, completely content to let the game come to him and get everyone else involved. Whether it was the absence of Griffin or the presence of former teammate Eric Bledsoe defending him or something else, Paul was in "attack" mode from the start of the game. The Clippers raced to a 17-7 lead, with CP3 directly involved in 15 of the 17 points.
The first half felt like a mismatch, at least when Paul was in the game. The Clippers still had that same 10 point lead when he re-entered seven minutes before the half, and the Clippers took a 63-47 lead into the intermission. The Clippers were good and the Suns were not so good, and everything seemed normal (or rather the new normal).
Then everything went topsy-turvy to start the second half. Suddenly the Clippers were completely inept on offense, or had the Suns transformed into the best defensive team in the league during halftime? Or maybe coaches matter a hell of a lot more than any of us knew, and in realtime at that, as an under-the-weather Doc Rivers was missing from the Clippers sideline in the second half. Whatever the cause, the Clippers managed just three points -- on a Byron Mullens three pointer after an offensive rebound -- in the first eight minutes of the third quarter as the Suns cut the lead to three. It wasn't just that they weren't scoring either -- the Clippers didn't deserve to score. They did not generate a decent shot for eight minutes (depending on how you feel about the level of decency of Mullens threes). In eight minutes, they generated one shot within 20 feet of the basket, while turning the ball over four times. Stranger still, after dominating the boards in the first half, suddenly the Clippers could not rebound -- Phoenix had two offensive rebounds in the first half, but got four on the first possession of the second half.
Eventually order was restored and the Clippers pushed the lead back to ten by the end of the third and all the way back to 16 by the time Paul sat down for the final time. An 8-0 run by the Suns managed to cut the lead to one in the final minute, but the Clipper reserves executed a nice play and got a solid stop when they needed it to preserve the win. It's pre-season and none of this matters a lot -- but it was still a strange and interesting second half.
- Mullens' "one-trick-pony-ness" is getting a little strange. In Phoenix, seven of his eight field goal attempts were three-pointers. (He made four of those, his best showing of the pre-season, which was certainly a welcome sight.) Two years ago in Charlotte, he took 51 threes among his 591 field goal attempts (less than 9 percent). Last year, that shot up to 208 of 563 (about 37 percent). In four pre-season games, 33 of his 46 field goal attempts have been three-pointers -- a whopping 72 percent. Is this who he is now? Is this who the coaches want him to be? Or is just "Hey, it's pre-season, let's play with our new toy while it doesn't much matter?"
- DeAndre Jordan had another dominant game, with 11 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in 31 minutes. He now has 15 blocked shots in three pre-season games, all in limited minutes. It's worth noting though, off the top of my head I am fairly certain that all five of DJ's blocks last night and all six of his blocks in Utah came in the first half. That's good and bad -- it shows how very dominant he can be when he's fully engaged, and he evidently has been to begin those games. It also shows that he's been less intense in the second half of these games. Now, obviously it's understandably difficult to stay pumped in the second half of a meaningless blowout -- but at the same time, we all know too well that maintaining focus is going to be DJ's issue, as it has been for five years now. So keep an eye on that. By the way, after going 6-8 from the line in his first two games, Jordan missed four of five in Phoenix, so temper that free throw optimism a bit.
- It's difficult to explain the first eight minutes of the second half. The team looked completely overmatched by the Suns during that time. I'm going to call it a fluke for now -- the Suns were certainly playing great defense, much better than you would have expected especially in a pre-season game, and the Clippers were really, really off. Maybe they all had a touch of whatever it was that kept Rivers in the locker room. It was ugly, and I am going to choose to forget it because I prefer pretty things.
- In contrast, the final four minutes of the first half were quite lovely. With Griffin sitting out, we got our first extended look at a reasonable "small ball" lineup -- three guards of Paul, Crawford and Green/Collison, with Dudley at the four and Jordan patrolling the paint as the sole true big. With Dudley stretching the floor to the tune of four straight jumpers, the Clippers closed the half on a 16-7 run. The Suns were not small during that time, but Dudley and Crawford managed to hold their own against the likes of Channing Frye and Marcus Morris defensively, and the space on offense was great -- and it could be even better with a healthy Redick. Mullens is certainly a wild card in the regular season rotation, but I expect we'll see plenty of small lineups with Griffin or Jordan as a lone big, given the depth of talent on the wing for the Clippers.
- It's going to be interesting to see Bledsoe this season. He is such an athletic marvel that he can do unexpected things on the court. He picked CP3's pocket at one point (which might have been a mistake, because then Paul got angry), and on a switch where he ended up defending Jordan at the rim, he climbed the ladder to deflect Paul's lob pass. Now, Paul could have thrown it higher I guess, but with Bledsoe giving away about 11 inches, he didn't think he had to. But those are the kinds of plays Bledsoe makes. Still, can he make enough of the boring, everyday plays, 18 footers and bounce passes, to be a big time starting point guard? Watching Bledsoe and Goran Dragic last night, they are very different players, but it's obvious that there are things that Dragic does much more effectively, and that the Suns need him to do those things.