Chris Paul stood with his hands on his knees, then his hips. He made his first of two free throws to even the score at 99, then let his head and shoulders sink and his arms swing freely, taking the briefest moment to relax and save energy before snapping up to make the next one. Tonight, his Clippers were unable to find a championship-caliber level of execution, but that didn't prevent them from mustering championship-level effort.
This was a game you could forgive them for having lost. Last night, 1,000 miles away and 5,000 feet higher, Paul played 39 minutes. Blake Griffin played 41. DeAndre Jordan 43. Their tired legs manifested themselves in some short jumpers and an early rebounding deficit, but the Clippers stars, with a big assist from J.J. Redick, fought their way to an important win.
The 6'0" Paul was the biggest of Doc Rivers' big three, scoring a game-high 27 and wreaking havoc all over the defensive end. There are some who are fond of saying that, with Michael Jordan as the archetype, one measure of an elite player is his propensity to will his team to victory in those less-interesting matchups during the doldrums of the season. With contests against San Antonio, Atlanta, and Golden State approaching, this game could have been overlooked, but this was an opportunity that Paul was determined not to give away. After being abused on the low block by Kendall Marshall, he fronted. After being forced into early turnovers by Milwaukee's stunting defense, he adjusted. He boxed out Zaza Pachulia, nearly one foot and 100 pounds his physical superior, for a critical offensive rebound. He spun and contorted into baskets. In short, he got the job done.
A lot of Clippers got the job done. Blake started the scoring with an aggressiveness that has been missing at times this season, punishing overmatched rookie Johnny O'Bryant III, who has been forced into the starting lineup by Jabari Parker's season-ending injury. When the aggressiveness turned into foul trouble, Blake reversed course and unveiled one of his best passing games of the season. And in the fourth quarter, he attacked the boards, most notably when he put back a missed Paul jumper to push the lead to four with just a handful of seconds remaining. (Although, it certainly helped that Bucks Head Coach Jason Kidd, who has otherwise impressed by getting this team to .500, kept starting C Larry Sanders on the bench for the game's biggest defensive possession, forcing 6'3" Brandon Knight into a futile box-out attempt. Poor Knight has been embarrassed by Blake and almost literally killed by DeAndre.)
It's to Paul and Griffin's credit that it's taken me almost 400 words to come back around to J.J. Redick, who made five of eight three-pointers en route to 23 points. J.J. was white-hot and roasted O.J. Mayo right out of the game. He made shots off screens, off the dribble, and in transition. He even got mad when he was open and no one passed him the ball. J.J. may be learning that good things happen when he plays a little selfishly.
As for the Bucks, we knew they were long and athletic, but no one warned us they could be so polished. Sure, they ran themselves into occasional trouble, but they showed patience and precision that they simply shouldn't possess yet. 20-year-old swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo is a surgeon in transition -- a surgeon with a 7'4" wingspan and bounce for days. Jared Dudley, formerly known as Disappointing Clipper Jared Dudley, ably defended the more physical Griffin while passing and shooting his way to a +11 rating for the game, tops on his team.
The list of Milwaukee contributors is enviable: Khris Middleton showed his shooting touch; Kendall Marshall showed his court vision; Jerryd Bayless showed his best Jamal Crawford impression. All told, six Bucks finished with double-digits in the scoring column, and four of them began the game on the bench.
What a crazy concept this bench scoring thing is. Tonight was just another chapter in the developing story titled "How the Clippers Bench Gave Away the Lead". Fortunately, for one quiet Saturday night in December, it wasn't the main plot. Tonight, the Clippers got the job done.
Some other (mostly serious) things I noticed:
- Are there any remaining Blake-haters? Does anyone still think Blake is a one-dimensional gimmick player? If there are, and if for some reason they happen upon this piece, then take heed: power forwards do not pass like Blake Griffin does. I've been harsh on Blake's defense this season, but my goodness has his offense continued to improve. His vision and decisiveness have come to such a point that the ball barely touches his hands before he's softly guiding it to a Redick jumper or DeAndre dunk. It's beautiful enough to make this long-suffering Clipper fan tear up. Sigh, moving on...
- We all agree that the Clippers' bench unit has been a 27-game tire fire. Well, here's another tire: the most frequently-used bench group (Farmar, Crawford, Turkoglu, Davis, Hawes) has an offensive rebound rate of just 11.1%. If that were representative of the whole team, it would be dead last in the NBA by an astounding 9.8%. You put a lot of pressure on yourself to score efficiently when you only get one chance to do it. This writer's (temporary) solution? Less Glen Davis, more Ekpe Udoh.