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Clippers 97 - Blazers 85 (Preseason) - An Auspicious Debut

My first game at Staples Center as cub reporter went well for the home team, if not for me.  Friday is soccer practice night - so I left the house with three kids (two of mine and one friend), a cello (ClipperMax has his lesson before practice) and a dozen or so soccer balls - but no laptop.  I left the second practice early to make the game, but didn't discover my mistake until I got to the Staples.  Hopefully I'll get better at the logistics part.  At any rate, I wish I could have been on the thread with everyone - looks like you had a good time.  Thanks to Citizen bestclipfan for putting it up there.

If you were at Staples tonight, you know this already - the Clippers were fun to watch.  A lot of fun.  They're not going to shoot that well every game, and they were still sloppy - but they were fun. 

Baron came out energized from the start, and it showed - particularly on the defensive end.  I had him for five deflections by himself in the first quarter - and a few of those led to fast break points.  Speaking of fast break points, the Clippers had 28 of those on the game - I haven't looked it up, but I'm pretty sure 28 would be in the top five for all of last season.

It wasn't just Baron playing defense either - the entire team looked very good defensively.  I said already that they're not necessarily going to shoot that well every night, but defense doesn't go into a slump.  If the team puts the effort in, they can defend.  Now, Portland was far from sharp, and if this game had counted I highly doubt they would have gone to Greg Oden so many times (dear FSM his offensive game is terrible) - but even with all of those caveats, you had to be pleased with the defense.

Another characteristic that will hopefully differentiate this edition of the Clippers from those of the recent past was on full display tonight, and that's depth.  Chris Kaman had a rocky start, with two fouls, a turnover and a terrible looking shot in the first 2:16.  He had to sit down with those two fouls, and the first Clipper off the bench was... DeAndre Jordan.  Now, when I talked about the quality at the end of the Clippers' bench this season, I had DJ in that 'last five' group.  I didn't figure DJ for a primary rotation guy yet - not with Kaman and Camby and Griffin and Smith all needing minutes.  But it's looking more and more like Jordan's going to have to get regular minutes as well.  He replaced Kaman, blocked a couple of shots and scored 5 quick points (one bucket on an actual post move!).  His energy was terrific, and more importantly he was under control.  He's a completely different (read much, much better) player this season.

So including Jordan in the group that needs minutes, you now go 10 deep.  All 10 played in the first half, and all of them looked good.  Unfortunately, it's still a little thin on the wings, and a little heavy at the big spots, but it's nice to have too many quality players anywhere for once. 

Blake Griffin entered his first pre-season game with 1:45 left in the first period.  MDsr has been talking about the flexibility that he has with Griffin to play him at multiple positions, and it was immediately evident.  He came into the game next to DJ, playing power forward.  But 11 seconds later, Jordan picked up his third foul and was replaced by Craig Smith.  No problem, Griffin slides over to the five with Smith at the four.  A few minutes later, Kaman came off the bench to give Al Thornton his first break of the game - and Griffin moved from the five to the three.  Now, Ime Udoka is not the toughest cover in the league, so it's not a huge deal.  But the guy played three positions - in the first six minutes of his first game. 

If you didn't see or possibly hear, I'm not sure I can do justice to what Blake Griffin brings to the court.  Early in the second quarter he went diving over the scorer's table after a loose ball (in the process giving everyone in the Clippers' front office a heart attack), then hustled back onto the court into a passing lane for a steal.  He doesn't have any speed other than full.  He may have to tone it back some just to survive an 82 game season.  He hit the deck pretty hard twice tonight - and this is pre-season. 

On his first few possessions, Juwan Howard (who is 16 years older than Griffin) just played off of him, daring the rookie to shoot - which he did, and he missed.  He should get used to that defense, because until he proves that he can make that 18 footer (which he will), that's how everyone is going to defend him.  But even if he doesn't make his jumpers, the guy will fill lanes and dunk the ball.  He had three of those, salvaging a .500 from the field game without making anything other than dunks.  As a reporter in the press box, I'm supposed to be an impartial observer - but I slipped up and let out a whoop on his third jam, a soaring two hander that's sure to be on all the highlight reels. 

Griffin's final line in the box score isn't awe inspiring - 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists in 21 minutes, a nice game but nothing to write home to Oklahoma about - but his presence is worth so much more.

Overall, it's hard to find a Clipper that didn't play well.  Eric Gordon was his efficient self, scoring 12 points on 8 shots.  Moreover, he played commendable D on Brandon Roy, one of the superstar two guards who could end up giving him trouble this season.  The point guards (Baron Davis and Sebastian Telfair) combined for 18 assists against only 3 turnovers, which is just outstanding.  The team as a whole had 30 assists out of 41 made baskets, which is another amazingly good number.  Kaman, after that shakey start, played well, with 6 for 8 shooting and 4 blocked shots.  His face up jumper was really clicking, and in fact in the third quarter he really bailed the Clippers out by making several hoops when they had nothing going.  Thornton was good, Butler was good, Camby was good, Smith was good.  Let's face it - the team looked good.

Seeing this group assembled on the floor, it's obvious that they will be most effective when they run.  Both Baron and Bassy are tremendous in the open court, and every one else is hyper-athletic for their positions.  The Clippers last three draft picks (Thornton, Gordon and Griffin) were among the best athletes in their drafts, if not the best.  And Chris Kaman is one of the most athletic centers in the league, even if he doesn't look like he is.  And both Jordan and Griffin, if not the whole team, are busting their butts to get up the floor, because those guys love to dunk the ball.  Jordan is looking for the lob on the break every trip (he didn't get one tonight, though Bassy did set him up for a great jam in the fourth quarter).  And as we've said, Griffin only knows how to play one way.  With 30 points in the first quarter, and 28 fast break points in the game, at least for this one game that doesn't count, these were the running Clippers.

It's important not to get too worked up over a pre-season game.  The Blazers weren't great tonight.  The game doesn't count in the standings.  But there were many very encouraging signs during the game.  Let's hope the team can do more of the same.