About 11 AM a friend of mine called and offered me seats in section 103. I had considered going to this game, mainly because the day games are the easiest ones to take the kids to. By the same token, I didn't go to the Phoenix game last Sunday because I feared a blow out, with the Clippers missing so many key players. Minnesota figured to be a more beatable opponent, but then again, with Marcus Camby now out of the lineup, the Clippers would be even more shorthanded. Still, free tickets are free tickets, and so the kids and I headed to Staples Center, hoping that the Clippers could avoid being embarrassed.
Even that modest goal seemed to be too much to ask in the early going. The Clippers fell behind 24-8, and Craig Smith - averaging 9 points a game on the season - personally outscored LA 16-10 in the first 10 minutes. (Obviously I missed on the superstar for one game. In retrospect Smith - one of those undersized, high energy power forwards a la Paul Milsapp - was an obvious choice.) In the entire first quarter, the Clippers starters scored 8 points - 6 from Bian Skinner, and 2 from Mardy Collins. Al Thornton and Eric Gordon, the only two Clippers one would characterize has having solid NBA offensive arsenals, combined for nada.
I guess sequences like that are to be expected on a team missing its 4 highest paid players.
The rest of the way the Clippers were much more competitive. Unfortunately, they had simply dug too big a hole. On several occasions they battled back to within 3, and finally got the lead to 2 in the final 2 minutes on a DeAndre Jordan put back. But the hill always proved a little too steep, and they could never quite get over the top. Some careless turnovers, a couple defensive lapses, and the Wolves would build the lead back up to double digits. It's hard enough trying to win basketball games with a team as severely depleted as the Clippers are: to stake the other team to a 16 point lead in the first quarter makes it that much tougher. As a result, the Clippers never led in this game, and yet they still had a chance in the final minutes.
There's not a lot more to say about the game as a whole. There's no real point breaking down too many X's and O's when the guys on the court aren't the guys who are supposed to be there. Look at it this way - the NBA salary cap is a little less than $59M this season. The minimum team payroll is $44M. The luxury tax kicks in just over $71M. The Cavs, Mavs and Knicks all have payrolls over $90M. And the Clippers had $11M worth of players in uniform today.
But it is an opportunity for some young players to show what they can do. And there were some interesting results on that level.
- Steve Novak scored a career-high 18, including 12 in the first half, during which he was pretty much the only Clipper that was a threat to score. For me, the most entertaining part of the afternoon was watching the game within the game between Novak and Kevin Love. For an extended stretch in the first half, and another brief period of the second, they were matched up against each other at the four. Love CONTINUALLY got hung up on the flare screen the Clippers use to get Novak looks. Obviously, Kevin Love does not really want to be chasing Steve Novak across screens out to the three point arc, but it was pretty funny that they just kept running the same damn play, and it kept working time and time again. Of course, while Love doesn't want to guard Novak on the perimeter, Novak doesn't really want to have to deal with Love in the post on the other end. And indeed, while they were matched up, the Wolves went to Love mulitple times. The first time he got the bucket and the foul. Unfortunately, although he continued to get great position on Novak by simply overpowering him, Love was unable to finish most of his chances. He finished the game 2 for 9, and most if not all of those misses were from 5 feet and in. This is a game Love is going to want to forget. And a game that Novak will want to remember, and let's hope the Clippers remember as well even after some other guys get healthy. The guy is a weapon.
- DeAndre Jordan got the first start of his NBA career, and responded with 10 rebounds and 6 blocked shots, both career highs. Jordan is a breathtaking specimen of a big man. He's long, and he's athletic; but he's just not much of a basketball player - yet. The one time they ran a play for him, first he traveled, and then he missed the dunk. The good news is that he can get so much better with coaching and practice - and a guy like Kim Hughes, not too mention Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman, can teach him a lot if he's willing to learn. But he certainly has the potential to be a Tyson Chandler type defender, rebounder, dunker, without very much refinement. If he develops, his ceiling goes up. But as of now, he doesn't even do the basics, like boxing out - ask yourself why he gets almost as many offensive rebounds as he does defensive rebounds (he had 5 and 5 today). It's because his total disregard for boxing out means he doesn't preserve the natural advantage he has on the defensive glass of simply being closer to the basket than his opponent when the shot goes up. If he would locate his man put his body on him, his defensive rebounding numbers would shoot up. Of course, he never had to box out anyone in high school, since he was always 8 inches taller than everyone else, and he only had a single year of college. He also has a very annoying habit of trying to grab rebounds with one hand - which burned him once today, and almost burned him again. Like I said, he's still learning.
- Eric Gordon had a tough shooting first half, after three straight tough shooting games. When he missed his first jumper of the second half, I pointed out to ClipperMax that he had 10 points at the time, on 4 layups and 2 free throws, and that he hadn't made a shot from beyond 2 feet. And then the kid went off. He barely missed the rest of the way, including three threes, and finished with a game-high 25. One thing you have to love about the guy is his demeanor - when his jump shot wasn't falling, he took the ball to the rack. When he got some of those to go, he his jumper started going in as well. He's got a ton of confidence, and a ton of talent.
- The other mini-story on the floor had to do with Mardy Collins and Fred Jones. After Collins tried to throw ill-advised lobs to DeAndre on two occasions early in the third quarter, MDsr called timeout and replaced him with Jones. Mardy did not appear again - which I found strange. Was MDsr that mad about the turnovers? Or did something else happen to Collins? It's not like Jones was lighting it up - he finished 1 for 5, although he did commit only 1 turnover to Collins' 5. It will be interesting to see how MDsr divvies up minutes between these two in the games before Baron comes back. (By the way, Jones was signed to another 10 day contract today. He'll be on the team for at least 5 more games. At the end of this one, Baron is supposed to be back. It will be interesting to see if he can earn a contract through the end of the season after the immediate emergency at the point is over.)
- Speaking of lobs, why are the Clippers so inept at lob pass? It's obvious that they know they have a target in DeAndre Jordan - they don't throw lob passes very often, but when they do, 90% of the time Jordan is on the receiving end. Unfortunately, it just doesn't seem to come naturally to anyone on this team. During the game they tried to lob to Jordan FIVE times. None of them resulted in points. Four resulted in turnovers, and one resulted in a Minnesota foul. A lob has to happen organically - when the Clippers come out of a time out, and run that back screen for Jordan, the other team seems to always know it's coming. (I don't think that particular play has worked since the third pre-season game - maybe they shouldn't have tipped their hand like that in a game that didn't count if everyone is going to know it's coming the rest of the season.) But the passer has to know it's not available. Here's a tip - if the help defender has sniffed it out and is standing where Jordan is going, DON'T THROW THE LOB! This is where MDsr's by the numbers offense is problematic - NBA defenses are good, and NBA scouting is even better. They almost always know what Option 1 is, and they're going to take it away from you. So you have to be ready to go to option dos, and option C, and option vier, and option cinq. The Clippers don't improvise well.
Baron Davis, Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby all have more or less the same time table for return as of this moment. The game next Sunday at Golden State is the approximate return date that one would expect, based on the statements that have been given. And Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News seems to think that Baron at least is not going to miss a chance to get booed by the fans in Oakland. That hopefully leaves only a couple more games for this severely shorthanded team - including against the Lakers on Wednesday. That one is going to be truly, truly ugly. But things could start to look up after that.