After missing over five weeks and 18 games with a sprained wrist, it took Eric Gordon all of 15 seconds to score for the Clippers. And he made it look easy, which is not something that has been happening a lot for the team in his absence. Gordon got off to a great start in his return to action, scoring 9 points in the first quarter. But Gordon's much more important to the Clippers as their closer, and he bookended those 9 first quarter points, with 9 huge fourth quarter points, all 9 of them coming in the final 5 minutes of the game after Houston had erased an 11 point fourth quarter lead to tie the game. On the possession immediately after the Rockets caught the Clippers, Gordon made a three pointer, and the Clippers never trailed again. Gordon was averaging 24.1 points per game, ninth best in the league, while playing 37.8 minutes per game. Was he rusty after such a long layoff, was in not in game shape? Well let's see - he scored 24 points in 35 minutes, so you be the judge.
And it's not just Gordon whose presence is felt back in the lineup. The Clippers two leading scorers tonight were their two leading scorers last season: Gordon and Chris Kaman, who were playing together at something like full strength for the first time since early November - that is to say, 4 months. Gordon and Kaman scored 24 and 21 respectively tonight, and along with Blake Griffin (20) and Mo Williams (17), the Clippers attack has more weapons than we've seen at any point this season.
There's a part of me that's a little disappointed that the Clippers didn't win this game more easily. Some things went very, very right for the team. For instance, they enjoyed a massive rebounding advantage. They also had a big edge at the foul line. Also, in the preview, I highlighted the importance of the battle between Blake Griffin and Chuck Hayes, and specifically mentioned the impact of early calls in that matchup. The Clippers got the calls early, and Hayes picked up two first quarter fouls and had to leave the game. That was a major factor in Griffin scoring 20 points through three quarters. But despite Hayes' absence, the Clippers trailed at halftime by 5 points, even though it seemed as if they should have had control of the game.
On the other hand, the Clippers had to overcome some adversity as well. Part of it was their own foul trouble. Griffin was limited to only 34 minutes, as he picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter, and then got his fifth almost immediately after he entered the game in the fourth. Some of the calls on Griffin were pretty cheap - touch fouls where he just shouldn't have put himself in the situation. The fifth foul was a 'restricted circle' blocking foul in which his toes were out of the circle, and his heels were off the ground, so that he was not actually touching the circle. Ralph explained that, indeed that is a violation, as the rule is really a plane issue, suggesting that the restricted area is an imaginary half cylinder extending up from the floor. If that's the rule, it's (a) news to me and (b) completely absurd. No other space on the floor extends above the floor - they don't call it a two pointer if you jump past the three point line while shooting, they don't whistle three seconds if you fail to get your arm out of the key - why are we suddenly doing it with the restricted area under the basket? Of course they can make whatever rule they want, but the big problem is that it's almost completely unenforceable. With so many things going on out there, do we really want to have refs trying to determine the precise vertical plane of the restricted area? But enough on that. I guess maybe I should bring back the absurd call of the game feature if I want to pursue these tangents.
In addition to Griffin's foul trouble, the Clippers had to overcome some pretty ridiculous three point shooting by the Rockets. Houston made 13 three pointers in the game - the second highest total the Clippers have allowed this season. Then again, they took 31, which was the highest number of attempts by a Clipper opponent this season. Houston actually shot a higher percentage on three pointers (41.9%) than they did on two pointers (41.8%), and over one third of their attempts were threes. Oh, and in addition to their 13 makes, they were fouled on two other three point attempts, giving them 15 three point plays from beyond the arc. And it's tough to fault the Clippers three point defense too much - Kyle Lowry, Brad Miller and Goran Dragic made three threes each, and none of them are really great three point shooters on their careers. They just made some shots tonight. For the Clippers to win a game while giving up 13 three pointers is highly unusual - coming into the game, they were 2-14 when giving up 10 or more threes.
So when you consider Griffin's foul trouble and the damage Houston was inflicting from deep, this is a good win, against a hot team that was pretty motivated to get above .500 for the first time this season. Of course having Griffin forced to the bench with fouls is much less of an issue with Kaman back.
Depth in general is a luxury that the Clippers just haven't had for most of the season, with multiple players continually injured. One of the more interesting subplots of this game was Coach Vinny Del Negro's rotation. The minutes at the bigs went almost exclusively to Griffin, Kaman and DeAndre Jordan (who also had a nice ball game). Ike Diogu and Craig Smith both logged DNPs, while Brian Cook was on the inactive list (a bit surprising in and of itself, as Smith and Diogu seem a bit redundant, while Cook adds a stretch four option). On the wings, Del Negro experimented extensively. Al-Farouq Aminu (19 minutes), Jamario Moon (17) and Ryan Gomes (15) all split minutes. But VDN also went big at times (with AFA playing the two) and small down the stretch (with Williams, Gordon and Randy Foye playing together in a three guard lineup).
I found two things particularly interesting with the rotation:
- Gomes, the starter at small forward for most of the season, played fewer minutes than either Aminu or Moon and
- Eric Bledsoe, who was starting a week ago in the absence of either Baron Davis or Mo Williams, did not get off the bench in the second half.
Whether these are one game occurrences or nascent trends remains to be seen. Moon's athleticism around the rim was certainly nice to see, as he snuck behind the defense for dunks on a couple of occasions. Between the three of them, Gomes, Moon and Aminu provided almost normal production for a small forward - 14 points and 7 rebounds, 6 for 11 shooting. Sure, it's weak, but we've seen a lot worse from the position.
All in all, it's pretty clear that the Clippers are a better basketball team with Eric Gordon, and they're also better playing at home. The NBA sadly won't let them play all of their games at home, but hopefully we'll get to see the rest of the games with Gordon.