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Houston 92 - Clippers 83

First things first:  the Clippers lost again.  They are now 0-6, extending their worst start in a decade.  They are the only winless team in the Western Conference, and one of two in the NBA. 

Having said that, there were many encouraging signs in this game.  I think this team may be OK, and possibly pretty soon.

The good news is that the team avoided a second half collapse.  The bad news is that they instead decided to have a first quarter collapse, and staked Houston to a 15 point lead courtesy of a very, very ugly 19-4 run where Luis Scola looked like Paul Millsap.  Houston is a pretty good team, and although the Clippers got right to the doorstep of a full comeback in the third quarter (they were within a point with the ball at 59-58, and had three possessions down two at 62-60) they never got all the way back up the hill, and in the end the psychology of trailing wore them down.

So they weren't able to overcome their early game lapse.  But as I said, there were some positives to take away from this game nonetheless.

For one thing, Chris Kaman had arguably the best performance against Yao Ming of his career.  He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals and only 2 turnovers.  He made 11 of 18 shots, including a couple of dunks that were pretty emphatic and not at all Mr. Flippy-esque.  It's significant to note that Chris had some early shots blocked by Yao, and in years past that might have been it - he likely would have lost confidence and been useless for the rest of game.  In this one, he fought through it, made the adjustments, increased his aggressiveness, and took the ball to the big man. 

Baron Davis had his best game as a Clipper.  He played a season high 40 minutes, and though I would not say he looked great in the fourth quarter, he was still out there battling.  He was able to get to the rim throughout the game and generally create havoc for the defense, which is what the Clippers need him to do.

Beyond the individual performances, we began to see glimpses tonight of how these pieces may fit together.  Like when Kaman ran past Yao in transition and Baron threw a lob to him.  Or Baron and Kaman on the pick and roll.  In fact, half of Baron's 8 assists came on passes to Kaman.  And then there was the give and go, Camby to Kaman back to Camby on the baseline.  The conventional wisdom is that there's not enough room for two seven footers down low, but of course there is if they know each other's tendencies and move the ball. 

Perhaps the most telling statistic of the night is this one:  Cat Mobley 21 minutes, Eric Gordon 17 minutes, Ricky Davis 27 minutes.  Cat did not play a single minute in the fourth quarter; a quarter which featured an extended look at what may be the starting lineup later this season - Baron, EJ, Al, Camby and Kaman.  Now, I am not a Cat Mobley hater.  I think he has done yeoman's work in his Clipper career.  But I have long thought the MDsr relies too much on his veteran shooting guard - hence the moniker of 'Blanket'.  Ricky got 10 minutes at the two, and 17 minutes backing up Thornton at the three.  And Eric Gordon got his most significant court time of the season. 

Was Gordon a difference-maker?  Not in this game, but you can certainly see how he can be.  He takes the ball to the hole strong, he's got a beautiful shooting stroke, and he's got a ton of confidence.  The refs did him no favors - they seemed to give him the full rookie treatment in two different encounters with Brent Barry - but the talent is there.  He's got scorer written all over him.

I don't however think that this marks a major shift in minutes - not yet anyway.  I think this game is an early season anomaly driven by MDsr's penchant for playing the matchup game.  Specifically, he likes Cat Mobley to guard the opposition's best wing player.  But Tracy McGrady was ineffective tonight, and played only 25 minutes himself.  Meanwhile, Cat's just not strong enough to contend with Ron Artest (and indeed got manhandled during the couple of possessions he was on Ron-Ron).  MDsr didn't feel compelled to have his 'Blanket' guarding Brent Barry; so basically, that was a matchup in which he thought he could afford to use Gordon.  I'm not convinced MDsr's going to give EJ so many minutes when he's got a more versatile player to defend, but I am hopeful that he's going to get significant burn in the early part of this season.

A few more random observations:

  • Nothing makes me more crazy than inconsistency.  In the first quarter, the refs called a travel on Cat Mobley on a fast break.  Now, there's a LOT of traveling going on in NBA games.  There are probably 15 travels a game that aren't called.  With all those travels that aren't called, how is it possible that the refs can call one that never happened?  I think whoever called it just got fooled; Cat caught the pass, took the step and a half he's allowed and shot the ball.  It would have been a travel had he not shot, and I think whoever blew the whistle must have thought he wasn't shooting.  But he did shoot, and it was clearly not a walk.
  • Meanwhile, if you've got the game on TiVo, go back and watch a few plays.  A little over a minute into the second quarter, Carl Landry gets the ball on the wing.  He clearly establishes his left foot as his pivot foot.  He decides however that he wants to turn the other way, so he blithely changes to his right foot as his pivot foot.  No call.  He then starts his move with a two step, and they FINALLY call the walk.  If you're scoring at home, he took four steps before he dribbled.  But at least they called the SECOND obvious travel.  At 5:24 of the second, Artest decides to go to the basket, and takes at least three steps before shooting.  No call.  Kaman blocks his shot, but Yao picks up the rebound for a dunk.  On a later play, Artest walked, and then passed it to Yao, at which point Yao also walked, and still there was no call. 
  • For the third game in a row, the Clippers suffered from a free throw disparity: 21 to 14 in this one.  And the Clippers certainly weren't getting the benefit of any calls.  In the second quarter, Steve Novak cleanly blocked Landry from behind but the refs blew the whistle.  On a similar play in the fourth quarter, it was Camby from behind on Landry - after Landry recovered the ball, a whistle blew and Dick Bavetta pointed to the baseline, ready to call Landry for stepping out of bounds.  But no - Mark Davis felt certain (apparently in retrospect, given the tardiness of the call) that Camby had committed a foul and sent Landry to the line.
  • Steve Novak was on the active list for this game and Paul Davis was inactive to make room.  Did MDsr suspect that Houston would play zone and that he'd need Novak's three point shooting?  Was he just doing Novak a favor to let him get some minutes against his old team, thinking he might use the extra motivation to come up with a big performance?  Or is he disillusioned with Davis? 
  • The game Sunday probably will not provide any clues.  Tim Thomas left this game with a sprained ankle, and based on the way he left the court, I think he'll miss a couple weeks at a minimum.  MDsr told the pest it would be 'a week plus.'  Which means that both Novak and Davis are both likely to be in uniform Sunday against the Mavericks.  (If DeAndre Jordan gets the call over Davis, then we'll know that MDsr is beginning to think outside the box a little.)
  • Thomas' absence in this one did not hurt the Clippers.  He can't possibly guard any of the Houston bigs, and in fact Scola absolutely torched him for the 4 minutes he played.  Brian Skinner came in and played Yao tougher than anyone else on the team, and in fact got the start in the second half for that reason.  So Thomas' absence in this game was not really a factor.  For you Thomas doubters out there, we'll get the chance to see how the Clippers play without him.  Against the Mavs, you can get by with Thornton playing some four - especially since Mobley defends Dirk better than anyone on the team.  But there will be games where Paul Davis is the first big off the bench where you'll say to yourself, "Gosh I wish we had Tim Thomas."  Mark my words. 
  • And has anyone seen Tracy McGrady?  Someone who looked vaguely like him was out there wearing his jersey tonight.

So it's another loss for the Clippers.  But it was competitive, basically until the final two minutes.  And it was yet another improvement on the young season.  Based on the way they've played better deeper into each game, the team should get its first win against Dallas on Sunday.