Two games in Texas, two non-embarrassments. Not bad, not bad.
Obviously, the bar is pretty low here. The Clippers suited 10 guys for this game, and one of those was Sam Cassell, who had missed the prior 12 games with a strained calf. Sammy played just under 9 minutes in what was hopefully a tuneup to his real return after Christmas.
But with Sammy back, the Clippers lost three front court players. Corey Maggette sat out with a sore knee; Paul Davis was in LA getting an MRI on the knee he injured Friday night in Dallas (turns out it's a torn ACL - drag); and Tim Thomas sprained his knee after two minutes on the court (we'll find out more about Tim tomorrow). Josh Powell rolled his ankle in the first half also, but returned to gut out significant second half minutes.
The score was 77-57 with about 80 seconds to go in the third quarter, and San Antonio was in cruise control, on their way to what was obviously going to be an easy victory over a depleted LA team. And then something very strange happened. Over the next 12 minutes, the Clippers outscored the Spurs 29-15 to cut their 20 point lead down to 6 with 1:39 left. Sure, it was too little too late, and the Spurs relaxed some with the big lead. But let's be clear - they had Parker and Duncan in the game, and the Clippers had their attention from the point where the lead was down to 12. Nonetheless, the Clippers kept coming, going nose to nose with the best the Spurs could muster, and still took the lead all the way down to 6. From that point Duncan scored 7 points to slam the door. But all in all, a very encouraging effort.
Last season's team, with everyone essentially healthy and with very high expectations, suffered through many blowouts - three of them at the hands of these Spurs. In similar situations last season, the team absolutely gave up and stopped competing. I'm not sure what the difference is - and it's not necessarily good news. The players who are new to the team don't necessarily figure prominently in the Clippers' future, with the exception of Al Thornton. So praise for the spirit of this season's unit is really veiled criticism of last season's team, which we frankly hope more closely resembles the team of the future. Let's say the difference has to do with an attitude in the locker room that can be sustained going forward. Yeah, let's say it's that.
Beyond the encouraging comeback and the respectable final score, there were a couple other positive signs for the Clippers tonight (to counterbalance the decidedly not positive injury news). Cassell was a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what it's like to play basketball with talented offensive players on the floor. In 9 minutes, Cassell accounted for 11 Clipper points - 3 for 6 shooting himself, plus 2 assists, one of them for a Richie Frahm three. Of course, the Clippers situation makes Sam's presence almost superfluous, and the Clippers would be wise to ship him to a contender if they could get a prospect or a decent pick in return. But as long as he's playing, life will be a little easier in ClipsNation. Cat Mobley played pretty well again, going 7 for 17. He is showing signs of being out of his shooting slump. And Chris Kaman bounced back from a nightmare first half (1 for 9 shooting) with a dream second half (7 for 8) and finished the game with yet another double double (20 points, 10 rebounds) to go along with 6 blocked shots. It was Kaman's defense of the rim in the fourth quarter as much as anything that enabled the comeback.
But the unmitigated great news of this game was Al Thornton. Thornton led the team with a career high 25 points. He made 10 of 17 shots and 4 of 5 free throws. He made jump shots, pull ups, turnarounds, and drives to the hoop. He remains one of the only Clippers who can get his own shot, and more importantly, he can actually make it. With so many players hurt, he's going to get lots of minutes out of necessity (he played a team-high 43 tonight). He took full advantage of his opportunity tonight.
Interestingly, although he started this game at small forward in Maggette's stead, after Thomas went down Thornton actually played most of his minutes tonight at the power forward (again, out of necessity). It may be too much to ask him to guard the likes of Carlos Boozer, but on the whole, I really like the idea of starting Cassell, Mobley, Maggette, Thornton and Kaman for the Generic Clippers. And let's face it - Al can do at least as good a job on the top 4s in the league as Tim Thomas has been doing.
The team now has four days off, playing their next game against Phoenix a couple of days after Christmas. The loss of Davis is a shame, and we'll have to wait and see about Thomas. With Brand out and Davis out, the Clippers can ill-afford to have Thomas miss time. He's far from my favorite Clipper, but he serves a purpose, and he's a body over 6'9" which are in dangerously short supply at this point. But the emergence of Thornton is great news, as is the return of Sam Cassell. Hopefully the likes of Maggette, Mobley, Cassell, Williams and Thomas can use these four days to get a little healthier, and the team can go into the Suns game stronger than they have been since the first week of the season.