You don't have to be a basketball genius to know that this Los Angeles Clippers team can score. The fourth best offense in the league a season ago, they added more and better weapons and a more sophisticated offensive scheme under new head coach Doc Rivers and his offensive guru Alvin Gentry, and everyone suspected they'd be an offensive juggernaut.
The question marks around the team center mostly on the topic of defense, and the ultimate question is whether the Clippers are going to have to simply outscore every opponent if they want to win, or if they can develop some sort of defensive identity to go along with their scoring prowess.
Well, the answer for three games has been "Let's just outscore 'em" and who knows, if they're this good, it might just be a viable plan.
The Clippers were firing on all cylinders in this one -- even when they missed shots, they were great shots that you really thought they were going to make. They hung 137 points on the previously undefeated Houston Rockets tonight, including 42 in the first quarter and 78 in the first half, a franchise record for scoring in a half in the Clippers era. Seven different Clippers scored in double figures, led by J.J. Redick with 26. Chris Paul, who has probably been the best player in the NBA in the first week of the season, finished with 23 points and 17 assists. After tonight's game he is tied for second in the league in scoring and leads the league in assists by a country mile.
That's all good news for the Clippers. There's bad news too. As in, their defense is pretty darn terrible at times. It would be great if the defense got better -- but the way the offense is purring, it may not actually be a necessity.
It's worth noting that in this game, featuring two of the marquee young superstars, if you were watching their defense tonight, you'd see how far they have to go.
When Blake Griffin came into the league, then coach Mike Dunleavy talked about how he thought he could play small forward in the NBA. But whenever the Rockets went small and put Omri Casspi at the four, Griffin looked completely lost. Early in the game he simply wouldn't go out to challenge Casspi at the three point line; after Casspi hit three first quarter triples, Griffin began closing on him, but did an absolutely atrocious job of it, allowing Casspi to drive right past him at will. Blake did a better job in the post than he did on the perimeter, but overall it was a pretty bad showing.
For the Rockets, it was James Harden who demonstrated how much work he has to do on the other side of the ball. Redick scored 26 points in 28 minutes, most of it against Harden. Redick is certainly a good shooter, but on several occasions he just drove right past Harden without the Beard seeming to care or notice. Redick isn't exactly known for his quicks, and he was going around Harden like he was nailed to the floor.
With the win, the Clippers now are tied for the best record in the Western Conference with a bunch of other teams. They have scored by far the most points in the league -- averaging almost 120 points per game! -- and they have allowed by far the most points in the league. They should consider playing with a red, white and blue basketball.
It was a fun game that had me smiling almost throughout, but two different plays in the fourth quarter actually made me laugh. The first was a Paul delayed fast break while the Clippers lead was 13 -- he didn't really have a numbers advantage, yet somehow he managed to get a wide open layup out of it. How? He had Casspi set a screen on Jeremy Lin. It was pure genius watching CP3 run Lin into Casspi and waltzed into an wide open layup on a 3-on-4 break.
The laugh out loud moment came on the very next play. The Rockets called timeout to draw up a play after the Paul layup, and coming out of the timeout, they ran a back screen for Dwight Howard to catch a lob from Chandler Parsons. Now, to understand why this was particularly funny, you have to go back a couple of plays, when Parsons tried to lob to Howard, but DeAndre Jordan recovered to knock the pass out of bounds. Howard when straight to Parsons after that and said "Throw it higher, I'll get it." So, coming out of the timeout, Parsons threw the lob -- into the third row at STAPLES Center. He looked at Howard as if to say "You told me to throw it higher!"
A couple of final notes:
I realize that citizens want to upgrade the Clippers' backup bigs and feel like Jamal Crawford is the most likely trade chip that could yield something useful but, MAN, do I not want the Clippers to trade Jamal. The guy is just an absolutely brilliant scorer, and has been carrying a second unit that has seen Darren Collison and Matt Barnes be pretty useless through four games. Crawford had 21 points and four assists in 30 minutes tonight, making six three pointers.
And while Collison and Barnes were useless in this game, guess who wasn't? Both Jordan and Griffin got into foul trouble in the third quarter, forcing Byron Mullens into action against Dwight Howard -- and the world didn't end. Mullens battled -- picking up five fouls in 15 minutes, but really, you want to use your fouls if you're defending Howard -- and made Dwight work. He got one blocked shot against him, and forced Howard into Griffin's help on another occasion, with Griffin picking up the block. He also made five of six shots including two three pointers -- everything gets better when the shots are falling. It could just be the matchup, but with Mullens playing 15 minutes while four of Ryan Hollins five minutes came in garbage time, it seems like perhaps Rivers has decided on Mullens as the first big off the bench, or at least decided to give him the first crack at the job. That's what I would do.