When the Los Angeles Clippers played the Warriors in Oakland on Thursday, they came out flat in the first half and then came out even flatter in the second half. There was a reasonable explanation for the underwhelming performance that night -- the Clippers were playing their ninth game in 14 days and the second game of a back-to-back, so they were fatigued and a lethargic game was understandable.
Saturday night at home against the Utah Jazz, the Clippers needed a bounce back game, but once again, they came out flat. Through six and a half minutes, they had made one shot out of six attempts. They were 0-2 from the line, and had committed three turnovers. That's more missed free throws and more turnovers than made field goals more than halfway through the first quarter.
Things got a little better from there, though not much. The team continued to turn the ball over, to the tune of six in the first quarter, but at least they started to make some shots. At halftime the game was tied at 42, which certainly wasn't good news, but it could have been worse. Scoring just 42 points against the 30th defense in the NBA was problematic to say the least, but a pair of Blake Griffin free throws had them even going to the break after Utah had led for the vast majority of the first half.
But in contrast to Thursday, the Clippers came out strong in the second half as they took control of the game with an 18-3 run in the third period. The defense was solid throughout, holding the Jazz to quarters of 21, 21, 23 and 22, so once the offense got going the tide of the game turned quickly.
The Clippers were led by Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford. Griffin had 25 points on 9-19 shooting, 11 rebounds and four assists. He wasn't as efficient around the basket as he usually is, but he also grabbed four offensive rebounds with a relentless effort even on his own misses. Crawford was simply terrific, scoring 27 points on just 15 shots. The fact that this performance came on a night when J.J. Redick was just 1-6 and had his lowest point total as a Clipper (4) was particularly helpful. Jamal twice drew fouls while shooting three pointers tonight, after doing it several times against the Wizards earlier this week. His knack for drawing contact (creating contact? imagining contact? selling contact?) on his jumper is uncanny, and the cheap points from bad possessions are manna from heaven on the offensive end. Crawford also had five assists, several of them of the spectacular variety, including a half court lob that Griffin turned into a reverse slam dunk.
The other performance worth mentioning came from the newest Clipper, Hedo Turkoglu. Six points, four rebounds, five assists and two steals may not seem like a huge impact, but that's some serious productivity for just 13 minutes of court time. He has such a great feel for the game that you completely understand why Doc Rivers was so enthusiastic about signing him. When he runs the four-five pick and roll -- up to tonight he'd mostly done it with DeAndre Jordan, but in this game he ran it with Ryan Hollins as well -- good things happen consistently. You wouldn't necessarily think that the four-five combination would put defenses in such a bind -- after all, part of the strategy of screening is to force the defense to switch into a mismatch, and you lose that advantage running it with two bigs. The difference is that teams practice defending the pick and roll with a big screening for a small -- they don't practice as much with two bigs. The coverages are just a bit more uncertain, and Turkoglu is such a good passer that he can take advantage of it. He got Jordan a lob dunk once, and got Hollins a dunk and a foul, all on the pick and roll. I have to admit that Turkoglu is a major find for the team so far, and I couldn't be more pleased to admit I was wrong about him. And he seems to be getting sharper with each game.
The Clippers improved their home record to 20-3, tied with Oklahoma City for best in the Western Conference. They are now 11-4 since Chris Paul was injured, with Paul's return to action drawing ever closer. Paul has made no secret of his desire to play in the All Star Game in New Orleans, and league rules stipulate that the game itself cannot be his first action up returning from injury. So if Paul is seriously pointing towards playing in the ASG, he'll have to in 11 days against Portland at the latest. That's just five games away.
The Clippers head to Denver tomorrow for a game against the Nuggets on Monday night. It will be their 11th consecutive game without playing consecutively games in the same place, turning their seven game Grammy trip into the equivalent of an 11 game trip. But if they can reach down for one more solid effort, they'll be back in L.A. for the following two weeks and five straight games, their longest homestand of the season. Given that the team is 20-3 at home, that could prove to be a very successful stress indeed.