Whew! Finally! A real game! One that counts and everything! The brand new Los Angeles Clippers hit the floor as part of the prestigious NBA Christmas day schedule and knocked out the Golden State Warriors by a score of 105-86. The game showed both how good the Clippers are right now (not very) and how good they could be (very), and how ruthless and superior Chris Paul, for whom they gave up so much, really is. The boxscore is here.
When the original schedule came out, 20 of the Clippers' 82 games were nationally televised. That was upgraded to 23 when the 66 game schedule was announced. With ten games on ESPN, four on TNT, nine on NBA TV, fully 35 percent of the Clips games are nationally televised. Clips have gone nationwide.
In the days before the game the big question was whether or not Stephen Curry, the Warriors sharpshooting young point guard (and the player the team reportedly refused to put on the table in a trade for then-Hornet Chris Paul), would play in the game having sprained his surgically-repaired ankle less than a week ago in a a pre-season test against the Sacramento Kings. Surprisingly Curry played 33 minutes against the Clippers but was a non-factor, scoring just four points on two for twelve shooting.
The first half was a see-saw battle, both teams looking rusty and unorganized. The Clippers built up a 36-28 lead with six minutes left in the second... mostly due to a reserve unit led by Mo Williams (wearing a mismatched, but Christmas-appropriate green headband). But when the first unit checked back in the Clips went cold and Golden State, led by Monta Ellis and David Lee put on a blistering run. Blake Griffin, star of stage, screen, and fitness magazine, got caught outside and fouled Dorrell Wright beyond the three point line to give the Warriors the lead.
The problem wasn't just missed shots, it was an almost complete failure to box out and rebound (the Warriors led the Clips in rebounding at the half, 30 to 20), an inability to finish high-percentage shots in the paint, along with shoddy defense kept that brought the Warriors back in the game. The Clippers found themselves down by two at the half.
But if this game and the two preseason games are any indication (and that's a pretty small sample size), the Clippers play better in the third quarter. Griffin made a string of meat-and-potato moves inside and led the Clips to a ten point lead, 63-53 with 5:00 left in the third. But then Warrior rookie coach, Mark Jackson made an unorthodox but effective decision... repeatedly fouling Clipper center away from the ball.
Jackson seemed to realize that without Jordan the Clips didn't have much going on defensively and is well aware of Jordan's greatest weakness (the Warriors of course, signed Jordan to an offer sheet for 43 million dollars less than two weeks ago, an offer the Clippers matched). The Warriors came down the court four times in a row and fouled Jordan, putting him on the line. The young center bricked up a string of free throws that were painful to watch. While the Warriors didn't turn the opportunity into immediate poins, Clipper coach Vinny Del Negro was forced to pull Jordan from the game. And the Warriors, playing at home in Oracle arena weren't done. With Jordan on the bench, the Clippers interior defense and rebounding vanished and the Dubs closed the score to 81-79 with 8:15 left in the fourth.
Then it happened. Chris Paul, who'd been more or less invisible and only mildly effective throughout the game, took over. It wasn't magical, the earth didn't move, but Paul seemed to say, "That's enough". He hit a long two. He hit another two with the shot-clock winding down. He dished to an open Blake Griffin for another bucket, hit Griffin in the paint for another and the Clips are suddenly up by 17 with under two minutes to play. And the game is simply over. I'm not sure the Warriors even knew what happened. One minute they were in it, then they simply weren't.
Other things we learned:
- Mo Williams is in good shape and ready to play. He was the one guy off the bench who looked like a professional.
- The Clippers bench desperately needs him. The second best bench player? Ryan Gomes. Randy Foye looked lost, and the Clippers have no good backup big men. None. They desperately need some big guys.
- It's a comfort to have a smart vet out on the floor at all times. When it wasn't Paul it was Chauncey Billups who had a great line of 21/5rebs/4 assists even though his three ball was off. Nice work.
- Blake Griffin is good, but could be better. His defense was woeful (he made David Lee look like an all-star) and his four fouls made it worse. He stepped up his offensive game in the third quarter but often forced the ball.
- Clips defense needs work. They got away with it against Golden State, but will likely get shredded against a stronger team (Wednesday against the Spurs, Friday against the Bulls). Worse? Rebounds. They stepped it up after the first half but still lost the battle 48-43. Blake Griffin had 7, Jordan had 5.
- Quietly filling in the holes was Caron Butler, who scored 11 points, pulled down ten rebounds and had four assists and no turnovers. He was there when the Clippers needed him and never in the way when they didn't. 36 minutes of hard work.
- DeAndre Jordan has to learn how to make free throws.
- Clips desperately need a back up center. (See above).
- Without Chris Paul, who finished 20/9 with only two turnovers the Warriors make the game more interesting in the fourth. In the closing minutes, it was as though Paul said, "Enough of this", took the Warriors out behind the barn and returned without them. It was cold, calculating, and utterly professional. It's why the guy is one of the best in the NBA. And it illustrates perfectly why he's worth as much as the Clippers paid.