We've said it many times, and it remains true -- not every game is a masterpiece. There will be games when the Los Angeles Clippers, for whatever reason, do not play their best. To come away from those games with a win is a blessing. Against the Wizards Saturday night, the Clippers took 94 shots, a season high. As it happens, they missed 59 of those shots, also a season high, by a wide margin.
The Clippers are a deep team, but as a general rule they rely on one of three guys to step up when they need a bucket. Blake Griffin (17.8 points per game), Chris Paul (16.8) and Jamal Crawford (16.7) are the Clippers three top scorers, and number four is more than five points back (Matt Barnes at 11.3). Against the Wizards, Griffin was 5-18, Paul was 6-16 and Crawford was 3-13; that's 14-47 (under 30 percent) from the Clippers' big three. No wonder the team shot just 36.6 from the field, their second worst shooting night this year.
The Clippers did a lot of other things well to win the game. The rebounded great, outrebounding the Wizards 58-43. It's true that their offensive rebounding total was in large part a function of the extraordinary number of shots they missed, but still 22 is a lot of extra chances. The Clippers also played good defense, forcing 18 turnovers and holding the Wizards to just 41.6% shooting.
And while it certainly doesn't look good on the resume to struggle against a team with just two road wins, this is clearly not the same Wizards team that began the year with 12 straight losses. John Wall is pretty obviously their most important player, and now that he's back it's a very different matter beating the Wizards. Wall played almost 31 minutes in this game, the most he's played since making his season debut a week ago, and the Wizards were plus two when he was on the floor, despite losing by seven. Wall scored a season-high 24, doing a lot of his damage at the free throw line, making 14 trips there.
The Clippers prevailed in the final minutes, but really it was more a question of the Wizards failing than of the Clippers succeeding. With exactly two minutes remaining, Wall went to the line for two free throws for a chance to tie the game for the first time since the first quarter, but he missed one of two leaving the Clippers up one. After two Griffin free throws, Nene had a free throw to complete a three point play, another chance to tie the game, and he too missed. After a Griffin offensive rebound and bucket, the lead was back to three when Wall made an unforced turnover on Washington's next possession, carrying the ball without any defensive pressure to speak of. Paul then hit the dagger bucket to give the Clippers an insurmountable five point lead with just over 30 seconds remaining, but those missed free throws combined with Wall's turnover were the self-inflicted wounds that did in the Wizards.
This was only the second game this season when Vinny Del Negro has had Chris Paul and Grant Hill both available, and there were some interesting developments, both positive and negative. As he did in the Orlando game, Vinny played the regular second unit (featuring Ronny Turiaf) he's used all season in the second quarter, but then replaced Turiaf with Hill on the unit that began the fourth quarter -- and four the second time that team was ineffective. Against Orlando the CHOBB unit (Crawford-Hill-Odom-Barnes-Bledsoe) was minus 3 in 5:21 to begin the fourth quarter, and the Magic eventually won the game despite starting the fourth quarter down eight. Against the Wizards, the CHOBB unit was minus 6 points in 4:51 to start the fourth, turning a nine point Clipper lead into a one possession game for the final seven minutes.
I don't by any means feel like it's time to give up on the CHOBB; Crawford had a subpar game in this one, and let's face it, if Crawford shoots badly, any fivesome of Clipper reserves is going to struggle. I do however think that Del Negro is making a mistake using the CHOBB exclusively in the fourth quarter -- this group needs repetitions in game situations, having not played together all year. If anything I could see playing the CHOBB in the second quarter and then reverting to the group with Turiaf in the fourth since that group is familiar with each other. By having their first 10 minutes of game action this season come in the fourth quarter of close games, Del Negro has put the fate of two games into the hands of a group that just hasn't played together. The good news is that at least this group is getting those reps now, and they are sure to get better.
Del Negro also made a very unexpected move in the first half with Hill's first appearance of the night. When VDN re-inserted Paul and Griffin late in the first half, he also game with Hill, having those three play with Barnes and Crawford for the final six minutes of the first half. With Griffin at the five and Hill at the four, the Clippers played some swarming defense and generally looked very good -- but they were ultimately only plus 3 as they also gave away a lot of size and the Wizards made them pay a couple of times. Washington -- with huge and effective bigs both in their starting lineup and on their bench -- seems a strange team against which to experiment with Griffin and Hill as your bigs (Hill was defending Emeka Okafor, in case you were wondering).
So Del Negro and the Clippers are searching for the right rotations and combinations to use with a healthy Grant Hill, but it's also worth noting that Hill and Paul seemed to mesh incredibly well when they were on the floor together. Paul twice hit Hill on rolling to the basket for layups, and although the finishes were far from Griffinesque they were just as effective on the scoreboard. Paul and Hill, at least in this game, seemed to have an innate connection which was amazing to see in literally their first NBA moments together. It made me wonder -- is it possible that as good as this team has been, that they could actually be not just better, but significantly better with Hill (and of course Billups) healthy? In the end this was obviously not a game to gush over, but I must say that I liked what I saw when Hill and Paul played together.
The Clippers thus arrive at the midpoint of the NBA season, 41 games down and 41 to go, with a 32-9 record. My computer like mind tells me that they're on pace to win 64 games -- not bad for a franchise that has never had a 50 win season, let a lone a 60 win season. In fact, in Clips Nation we're much more familiar with the 50 LOSS season, and it's worth noting that the Clippers would have to lose every remaining game, 41 in a row, to lose 50 games this season. It's definitely a different era.
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