Don't you kind of feel sorry for Tayshaun Prince? He hasn't exactly been the strong silent type through Detroit's decline, expressing his displeasure with the situation on more than one occasion, but he's continued to play hard on the court. If you're looking for signs of the fall among the holdovers from the championship team, don't look at Prince - he's shooting a high percentage, scoring as much as he ever did, and above all playing great defense. But unfortunately for Detroit, in tonight's Clipper victory, he looked like the only one playing defense.
As I suspected they might, the Pistons matched up Prince on Eric Gordon from the outset. Gordon had gone crazy against Rip Hamilton in the first meeting, but coach John Kuester switched Prince onto EJ for the final possession of regulation and the overtime and the Pistons pulled out the win. With that in mind, Prince again defended Gordon, and limited his open looks tonight - EJ had just 15 points on 5 for 11 shooting. But as their best defender was pre-occupied with the Clippers leading scorer, the other four Piston starters were being embarrassed. It got so bad that Kuester replaced everybody except for Prince - twice - opting for wholesale changes in both the first and third quarters.
Which is of course a big part of the Pistons problem. They've got the three members of the old guard in Prince, Hamilton and Ben Wallace, they've got Rodney Stuckey, who was supposedly good enough to make Chauncey Billups expendable, they've got Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, making $80M between them for the next four seasons, they've got the artist formerly known as Tracy McGrady - they've got a bunch of players, but they don't have a team. Question - how do these pieces fit together? Answer: they don't? (This all puts Chauncey Billups' career in a whole new light as well.)
In the first meeting between these two teams in LA, lackluster first half play and sloppy second half play from the Clippers coupled with some ridiculously hot shooting from Villanueva allowed the Pistons to steal the game in overtime. In fact, when Charlie V checked into this game and immediately hit his first two, including a contested three, I must admit I thought to myself "Not again." But Villanueva is averaging 13 points per game on 43% shooting for the season, so the odds were against him going for 30 points on 9 for 15 and 5 threes again. Villanueva missed his next six three point attempts after hitting that first one, and no one else for Detroit was much able to put the ball in the basket either.
The opposite was true for the Clippers - pretty much everyone played well, and they shot 57% from the field. It was a terrific group effort, but it was led by Blake Griffin. Griffin had 24 points and 17 rebounds, his 14th consecutive double double. He shot 11 for 17 from the field. Of his eleven field goals, six of them were dunks, but unexpectedly his highlight of the night was not a dunk. On a fastbreak early in the fourth quarter, Griffin took a pass from Gordon and as TMac was preparing to give the foul, Griffin spun away, did a 360, and gracefully laid the ball in.
I actually had to ask myself why that move was so amazing. I mean, we've all seen 360's, right? So what was it about that move that made us gasp collectively? Here's the thing - the spin away from McGrady actually takes him the wrong way for completing the layup. Usually on a 360, your rotation allows you to flow right into the shot. Blake rotates the other way, finishes the spin, immediately regains his bearings, and makes the layup look simple. It wasn't. Athletically, he made it look easy as well. Again, it wasn't. Most 360's aren't really a full rotation - the player is already turning before he takes off, and because the rotation leads to the shot, they usually aren't all the way around but can still get the shot off. There's no way Blake makes that shot, spinning the wrong way, if he doesn't make it around a full rotation. It may not be the highlight of the year (I'm still pretty partial to the Mozgov), but it's certainly the non-dunk highlight of the year.
By the way, the play led to a six point possession for the Clippers, which you don't see every day. Griffin made the bucket, but missed the free throw. Brian Cook rebounded the miss, and Villanueva committed a flagrant foul on Cook. Kuester thought Cook had gotten away with a foul on the rebound and got T'd up for arguing. So the Clippers got three more free throws (the technical free throw and two for the flagrant) and the ball out of bounds. Eric Gordon scored a layup on the subsequent possession. It would have been a seven point possession had Cook made both of his free throws; it might have been an eight point possession had they called a pretty obvious foul on Ben Gordon on EJ's layup. At any rate the six points were enough to stretch the lead to 25, and the game, which was already pretty much decided, was officially on ice.
Eric Bledsoe was back in the starting lineup for a sickly Baron Davis tonight. Bledsoe made two jumpers right off the bat, and whether those shots gave him confidence or it was something else, he was as aggressive pushing the tempo as we've seen him in weeks. He still made too many turnovers - four of them in 29 minutes - but he's not really helping the team if he's not aggressive on offense, so I'd rather see him pushing the ball, and deal with the turnover issues while he's learning on the job to stay under control. He had his best game in weeks, with 12 points and 8 assists.
Baron came off the bench to contribute six assists in just 19 minutes. That's 14 assists from the two point guards, and Gordon had another six himself. Twenty assists from the backcourt is outstanding, and indicative of the way the Clipper guards were breaking the Pistons down tonight. Baron threaded the needle to Griffin on a fastbreak immediately upon checking into the game, and also had a 40 foot backdoor lob for another jam. When Baron is making things happen and distributing for the team things get much easier. There aren't enough easy baskets in most Clipper games, but they tend to get a lot more when Baron is out there and playing well.
Ryan Gomes (18 points), DeAndre Jordan ( 8 and 7), and Brian Cook (12 and 7) all played well also, remedying a recent problem of a lack of support for Griffin and Gordon. Give Gordon a lot of credit in all of this - the Pistons defense (mostly in the form of Prince, but still) was geared to limit him, which it did reasonably well. But EJ didn't force things, and all the attention on him freed up a lot of space for everyone else.
About the only bad news from the game is that Brian Cook sprained his ankle in the final minutes. Sprained ankles are a drag anytime, but to get one in garbage time really stinks. Going into the season we wouldn't have rued the absence of Brian Cook, and it's certainly not devastating or anything if he misses a week or two (I haven't actually heard anything, so I have no idea how severe it is). But Cook has played surprisingly well, and his absence will be felt. We didn't dwell on it, but it's worth noting that he was missing for two close losses last week serving his suspension, including the one pointer against the Lakers. One wonders how he might have contributed had he been available.
As for the Pistons, it's just pretty ugly right now. You have to assume that Prince and Hamilton will be dealt soon, if only to give those former champions their freedom. Although Hamilton may be pretty tough to move, particularly if he has many more games like this one. I had Rip on my fantasy hoops team a few years back, and I can tell you that even at his peak he wasn't the most versatile player. He's not going to be getting a lot of rebounds or assists for you, and he doesn't get to the line a lot. He hits jumpers - that's what he does. Tonight, he was 2 for 9 overall, and 1 for 8 on jump shots, most of them missing badly.
I assumed that Prince and Hamilton would probably be heading out of town. But after this game, you have to figure at least one more name will soon be leaving Detroit:how much longer will John Kuester be the coach? They lost a 25 point lead against the Raptors earlier this week, and tonight got blown out at home to a team that had not previously won a road game.
For the Clippers, they finally got that elusive first road win, and now face a very tough game on a back to back in Chicago tomorrow night.
Bizarre Whistle of the Game: I'm just going to use this opportunity to rant a little bit about my least favorite rule in the NBA, the illegal defense rule. With 4:35 left in the first quarter, Eric Gordon was whistled for a defensive three second violation. By the strict letter of the law, it was the correct call - EJ never failed to get both feet out of the lane despite being right on the edge of it, and was in there for a little more than three seconds when the whistle blew. Nonetheless, it struck me as a strange call at the time, and when I went back and re-watched it, I could see why.
The spirit of the illegal defense rule is to keep defenders from standing square in the middle of the paint, ignoring his own defensive assignment and clogging the middle. In this case, EJ was defending Rip on the weak side, and was not particularly looking to clog the middle, but was simply in smart defensive position, seeing the man and the ball, just like we were taught by our high school coaches. He wasn't close enough to Hamilton to touch him (which of course he shouldn't have been) and he was on the edge of the key, never quite clearing all the way out, so yeah, it was the right call. But it was clearly just normal, good man to man defense. When Hamilton flared higher, EJ slid up the lane - he wasn't playing a zone, he was playing a smart man to man. Does the NBA want defenders to stand next to their defensive assignments 30 feet from the basket on the weak side?
The rule is just stupid. I understand that the idea is to try to eliminate the possibility that a team would plop
Yao Ming (OK bad example) Shaq O'Neal down in the middle of the lane, but isn't the disease worse than the cure? How many illegal defense technical fouls are called per game? Too many, right? And most of them are like the one tonight on EJ - punishing a player who's just playing proper off the ball defense. Instead we get centers, who really are playing a zone, hopping in and out of the lane looking silly. Besides, given how many great shooters there are in the NBA, are teams really going to play a packed in 2-3? They'll get killed giving up 3 points for 2 every trip.
Let teams play whatever kind of defense they want to play. Get rid of the illegal defense rule.