At some point during the fourth quarter I thought to myself "Man, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin look like they are in complete control of this game." And then I looked up and saw that the Pistons were within six.
The Clippers are a bit bipolar when it comes to playing against the NBA's bottom feeders. There were those nights when the 76ers and Lakers came into the Staples Center and got completely embarrassed by the Clips in games that were decided within the first 12 minutes, and then there are games like tonight, or that home game against Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, where the Clippers play down to the competition and end up in a close game in the final minutes against someone they should handle easily. Of course, the Hawks and Pistons aren't quite as bad as the Lakers or Sixers, but there is a middle ground in between 40-point blowouts and the performance we saw tonight that would make everybody involved a bit more comfortable.
The thing that makes tonight a bit more troubling was the play of the bench. The second unit was disastrous during both of its stints, failing to establish any rhythm offensively while allowing Will Bynum to dominate their backline defense off of high screen-and-roll action. It was concerning because it doesn't always appear that the second unit has an offensive direction, and I've written before about how playing Glen Davis at center is going to cause some problems defensively. Perhaps the offense will improve once Jamal Crawford is back to 100% since his scoring ability can create opportunities for others, but today the Pistons were able to bottle up most of the Clippers actions when the bench was on the floor, and only Danny Granger stepped into multiple shots with confidence.
The starters had their issues as well, mostly in the first half when the Pistons were able to get into the middle of the floor and find easy baskets in the paint, but they were locked in to start the second half, holding Detroit to 1-for-15 shooting to start the third period. The second unit would falter a bit in the fourth quarter and the Pistons did get the lead down to six with a little over three minutes to go, but Chris Paul took over soon after, scoring or assisting on 11 of LA's final 12 points.
I will say that this Pistons team was a lot better on both ends of the floor than they have been for most of the season, so it's not like the Clippers let a pathetic team hang around. Still though, there were some pretty basic defensive breakdowns that killed the Clippers time and time again in this contest, like failing to have a weakside defender deter Andre Drummond on the roll or leaving Jonas Jerebko open on the wing. Like I said, things changed when the Clippers came out of the lockerroom, but it's not as if those two things aren't something we've seen LA struggle with against strong opponents as well.
I thought the Clippers were solid offensively when CP3 was on the floor, as their side-to-side, rotating pick-and-roll offense was moving the ball around the floor effectively. Paul passed the 6,000 assist plateau in the first half and he had a great game as a scorer as well, picking apart the Pistons any time they gave him space in the mid-range and knocking down a trio of triples to boot. Paul finished with 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting with 16 assists, six steals and four rebounds in what was one of his more impressive games of the season.
The same can be said for Blake, who took a grand total of two free throws in this game, which really isn't that surprising considering how smooth every part of his game looked in this one. Griffin was a straight up freak in transition, doing things that the league has never seen a true post player do in the open court. It's so fun to watch Griffin run the break because the defense is stuck in an impossible situation: they are either concede the dunk, get put on a poster or concede a high percentage shot to one of Blake's teammates. Watching Griffin find shooters in the corner while sprinting towards the rim is amazing, as is watching him nail a handful of mid-range jumpers without touching the rim after watching him struggle on those shots for years. 25 points, seven dimes and seven boards for Griffin tonight, and nobody tried to fight him! That was the upset of the night with Josh Smith in town.
On a night like tonight, even though the whole team didn't shine, it was fun to sit back and watch what is easily the best dynamic duo in the league. But if Paul and Griffin are going to make that a universally known fact across the league, they're going to need some help from the supporting cast come playoff time.
Some other notes:
- Tonight's bench unit consisted of Collison, Crawford, Granger, Turkoglu and Davis. There just wasn't a lot of production there. Davis didn't take a shot, Turk had two points, Crawford was 4-of-13 and Collison wasn't as effective as he was alongside the starters. I think this might have been an outlier offensively, but defensively this unit is going to struggle. I know there is not an easy fix, because inserting Ryan Hollins just to have some more size on the floor doesn't guarantee better defensive results and it takes some spacing away from the offense, but it is more than a little bit concerning.
- On the brightside, Granger was awesome tonight. He hit three threes and had 14 points and I thought he was really good on defense. Granger was the only bench player that had it going tonight and the Clippers were able to get some critical buckets in the fourth thanks to him. I'm not a fan of mid-range isolations, but the Clippers can certainly turn the sets they are using to get Granger the ball in one-on-one situations into something with more movement. Being able to play off of a shooter like Granger running through screens can be a great alternative to the pick-and-rolls that netted very few open looks for the bench tonight.
- How good is Andre Drummond? I don't know why but I always think about how much better the Mavericks would be if they had Drummond instead of Dalembert. Perhaps it's because I think Drummond fits the Tyson Chandler-minimalist center role perfectly. If the Pistons didn't have Monroe and/or Smith, they could build a solid team around Drummond and Jennings by surrounding them with shooters. We saw tonight how much better their offense was when a stretch big like Jerebko was thrown into the mix.
- Josh Smith is likely the most maligned "star" in the league and the critiques of his game are not unearned. However, there has to be a situation where he could thrive, right? I mean, someone this talented can't be a net negative everywhere, can he? I think there is hope for Smith because of the way the Mavs have turned things around for Monta Ellis this year. It's a cliche thing to suggest, but putting Smith in the hands of Pop could do wonders for his career, and that kind of a move might be the only thing that gets him out of the basketball purgatory he currently finds himself in.
- It's worth repeating: How fun is the CP3/Griffin combo to watch? And that Griffin spin move on the block that led to a furious dunk in the first half? I'm not sure I'd disagree with the notion that that was his best post move ever.