Let the optimism begin.
The Clippers beat the Lakers after nine consecutive losses, 102-91. They did it convincingly. They did it solidly. They did it, most importantly, in the fourth quarter. They have now won four of their last five, including victories over the two best teams in the league, the Lakers and the Celtics. If there were lingering doubts before, they are now gone. The Clippers are for real, and they have every intention of making this season interesting, no matter how long it takes to get Blake Griffin back on the floor. And of course, that's when it gets really interesting.
In the game preview, I emphasized that Baron Davis needed to dominate the point guard matchup, the one position on the floor where the Clippers had a clear advantage. Let's give him a big check mark on that one. From the opening tip, Baron abused Derek Fisher. He scored the first time he touched the ball, and then picked Fisher clean 5 seconds later. It didn't matter much when the Lakers went to Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar - nobody could guard him, and Baron played arguable his best game as a Clipper.
It wasn't just the production either. 25 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 10 for 18 shooting - that's all great. But Baron was a LEADER tonight. He had the team focused and executing from the beginning. It's not a fluke that his plus/minus was plus 20 in 37 minutes of play. When he was on the floor, the Lakers were not going to win, because if the Clippers needed a basket, Baron was going to get one.
The numbers in the box score are all positive for the Clippers. 46% shooting to 38% for the Lakers. A 50 to 44 rebounding. 28 assists on 40 made baskets. And importantly, only 11 turnovers. After back to back games with 20 turnovers (both Clipper wins, surprisingly) the Clippers needed to do a better job taking care of the ball, and they did it.
But the ebb and flow of the game tells a story that we aren't used to in Clips Nation. When the Clippers went ice cold and lost their 15 point third quarter lead, the roof didn't collapse. The Lakers got within two with a minute to go in the third - but after missing six straight shots, the Clippers scored the final four of the period to stretch it back to six (on a basket by Baron and an assist by Baron). Then, when the Lakers scored the first six points of the fourth to tie the game for the first time since 38-38, instead of folding, the Clippers re-took control of the game. With 7 minutes to go, Farmar made two free throws to tie the game at 83. The Clippers proceeded to go on a 16 to 2 run to build an insurmountable 99-85 advantage. Close Clipper-Laker games frequently feature 16 to 2 fourth quarter runs - but invariably it's the Lakers doing the running.
I really can't emphasize this point enough. The Clippers have blown 20 point leads in multiple games this year. Meanwhile the Lakers have toyed with opponents all season, playing from behind and then closing furiously to get the win. That the Clippers might build an early double digit lead and that the Lakers might erase that lead is not surprising. That the Clippers would then go on to win the game decisively - that's shocking. And it's also a big step forward for this club.
If Baron gets the game ball for the Clippers, Craig Smith gets honorable mention. He put up 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in 20 minutes, shooting 6 for 7 from the field. He just loves playing the Lakers. He has four double digit scoring games this season, and two of them have come against LAL. It's interesting because Smith is the opposite of long. He's squat. And he loves to go against long, lanky Lamar Odom. Smith is used to having guys outreach him - everyone does it. He just wants to get into his defenders body and move him back under the basket, where that length doesn't matter. Odom's thin frame and high center of gravity can't keep Smith out of the paint. So while Lamar is a great low post defender against most of the league, he can't figure out the bowling ball that is Craig Smith.
Going into the game, we assumed that Kaman and Gordon would also have to have good games. Neither played poorly - but nor were they in peak form. It's a testament perhaps to how good this team can be when everything is clicking that they just beat the Lakers with Kaman shooting 7 for 19 from the field and Gordon making only one jump shot. To his credit, EJ did not settle for his jumper too often, and got into the paint numerous times where he was 6 for 6, helping him to a 7 for 12 shooting night despite the fact that his jumper was off. (How good can this guy be, if he can 18 points in 11 shots on the Lakers on a night when he's ice cold from outside? Wow.) Kaman likewise struggled with his jumper but contributed in other ways. He grabbed 14 rebounds and played solid defense on Andrew Bynum, winning his personal matchup with the other center in LA. Kaman finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. It was his 11th 20+ game out of his last 12.
The other thing we saw on offense was a very aggressive, up tempo attack. The Clippers scored 26 fast break points - a season high. Part of it was simply the energy they brought to the game - they were clearly pumped for this game, and they were flying up and down the court filling lanes. But it was also by design - they clearly thought that the Lakers' transition defense could be exploited, and they were correct. It's no coincidence that Baron had one of his best games as a Clipper in a game in which they were pushing the tempo. By the way, you won't see a better bounce pass than the one Baron threw forty feet to Rasual Butler for the jam. Milph praised it highly, but they never really gave it enough credit in my opinion. If you haven't seen it, take a look on NBA.com.
He had a tiny window between Kobe on the left and Bynum on the right, and he actually put spin on the ball that made it bounce up and back to Butler. If he throws that ball straight through that opening without english, it skips out of Butler's reach and out of bounds. Watch it come out of his hand in the slow motion - he very deliberately puts spin on the pass. That is a simply amazing dish.
As for the defense, the Clippers held Kobe Bryant to 10 for 30 shooting. Though he finished with 33, no one else on the Lakers was able to step up and help him. They really missed Pau Gasol in this one, as the offense seemed stagnant and wholly dependent on number 24. Bynum finished with 15, but he took 16 shots to get there. Shannon Brown made a nice contribution off the bench with 15 points, but no one else wearing purple reached double figures. Odom was 3 for 11, and was thwarted on three crucial plays - once when Baron drew a charge, and on key blocks by Camby and Kaman. Ron Artest was 3 for 7, and showed the worst part of his game on a key fourth quarter possession, when he overdribbled his way into a turnover and an Eric Gordon dunk the other way. I really feel like that play was the momentum swinger for the Clippers - if the Lakers score on that possession, the game is tied again, and instead the Clippers built the lead back to four at the start of their 16-2 run.
For his part, Kobe was absolutely magnificent - for 2 and a half minutes in the third quarter. Over the course of those 150 seconds, he scored 14 points on six consecutive Laker possessions, making 5 of 5 field goals and 3 of 3 free throws. The other 38 minutes he was on the court he was 5 for 25 - 20%. As they did against Brandon Roy on Monday, the Clippers played defense by committee - EJ got the assignment to start, but Al Thornton, Ricky Davis, Baron Davis and Rasual Butler all spent time on him. Butler did the best job (Kobe's a little too big for EJ). At one point in the fourth, Sool cut off the baseline drive so effectively that Kobe simply went out of bounds with the ball.
Speaking of Butler, we haven't really been talking about it, but look who the starting small forward is again. Rasual has gotten three consecutive starts - all three of them Clipper victories. It didn't seem like a definitive move at first. He started against the Sixers because of the matchup - MDsr wanted him on Iguodala. Then Thornton was sick and Butler started against the Blazers, while Al played only 9 minutes. Tonight, Butler once again was in the starting lineup, and Thornton played only 6 minutes. I'm assuming that is at least partially because of Al's recent illness still, especially considering that the Artest matchup would seem to have favored Al as the bigger three. But regardless of the reason, it's hard to ignore that the team is on a three game winning streak and really seeming to gel with Butler in the first five. I've always believed that this was MDsr's preference with this roster - Butler was just shooting so poorly early in the season that it wasn't working. But with Rasual having relocated his touch, he seems to be a better fit for the first unit, as we suspected he would be. Let's keep an eye on this over the next several games. Al has not been good off the bench this season, but if he embraces the role, I think he could be an ideal sixth man.
The Clippers get three days off before taking on Miami Sunday afternoon. The team keeps hanging around .500, and they can climb back to within a game of break even against the Heat. If they play like they did tonight, it won't be a problem.