The Los Angeles Clippers continued their preseason world tour on Saturday night with a game against the Charlotte Hornets in Shenzhen, China. Shortly before tip, news broke that Chris Paul had sustained an index finger fracture and would be sidelined. Fortunately, Dan Woike of the OC Register says it's not as serious as it sounds, and that CP3 could've played had this game mattered. Phew. Oh, and Austin Rivers didn't play after having several bottom teeth knocked out after taking an inadvertent elbow to the chops in practice on Friday.
I wrote in the game preview that this would be a match of contrasting styles, with the Clippers' up-tempo game clashing with the Hornets' slower pace. While the game did wind up featuring teams of two distinct styles, it was the Hornets that looked crisp, while the Clippers were stuck in the mud throughout.
The game started positively enough for L.A. J.J. Redick came out absolutely on fire, pouring-in 16 of the Clips' first 22 points on 6-8 shooting, including 3-4 from deep. He'd finish as the game's leading scorer with 23 on 9-16 shooting from the floor. The ball was zipping around the court as is typically the case with the Clips' starting group, even with CP3 watching from the bench. Pablo Prigioni looked quite steady in Paul's place, though at times he looks downright afraid to pull the trigger on his jumper. He seriously needs to have nobody within, like, 10 feet of him, otherwise he won't shoot. This isn't the worst quality to have, obviously, but at times Prigioni seems a little too hesitant.
Blake Griffin was his usual stellar self, finishing with 13 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. He shot just 6-14 from the floor, though most of those attempts came away from the basket. We don't need you killing yourself to get to the basket during the preseason, Blake, so I have no problem with this. Griffin was straight-up running the Clips' offense for a stint in the third quarter, to the surprise of nobody. He also looked quick and active defensively, though there was a particularly poor moment that involved Frank Kaminsky blowing by him. As mentioned above, LAC's offense was humming along fine for the majority of the first half, as evidenced by assisting on 20 of their first 23 makes from the floor.
But...the bench. The bench was always going to be a work-in-progress during this preseason with so many new faces, and it really shows. Stop me if you've heard this before, but all five Clipper starters finished the game with a positive +/-, while the five primary reserves (Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce, Cole Aldrich) were all in the negative. Once the starters came out, the beautiful ball (and player) movement ceased and the long-twos began. The disparity in quality of play from the starters to the reserves was jarring and instantly noticeable. The starting group is a beautiful basketball orchestra, while the bench appears to be five individuals that had met five minutes prior to going in.
The main story (for me, at least) coming into this game was Lance Stephenson facing the Hornets for the first time since being traded over the summer. His Clipper preseason career had gotten off to an inauspicious start through the first couple of games, shooting just 2-14 from the field. While his shooting wasn't far better than it had been (3-8 in this game), and the shot selection could use some work, Stephenson looked poised for the most part. His playmaking ability was on full display, and it's clear that he's an excellent passer, particularly in the pick-and-roll. Stephenson played hard and had easily his best game thus far, finishing with seven points, seven dimes and a steal with just two turnovers in about 27 minutes.
Other than Lance and Josh Smith (who has looked solid in all three games so far), the Clipper bench was a dumpster fire. Jamal Crawford was a passenger for the majority of the game before deciding to start chuckin' once the game got out of hand in the fourth quarter. His shot selection was questionable (as usual), and he really failed to make any sort of positive impact. Defensively, he was getting killed by the likes of Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb and Brian Roberts, all of whom had strong games.
One aspect of this game that stuck out was the Clips' new philosophy regarding defending the pick-and-roll. Rather than employing the hyper-aggressive hedging style that they've used since Doc Rivers took over, they're now playing a more conservative, sagging style. This is typically effective in helping protect against easy buckets at the rim but it leaves you quite vulnerable to midrange jumpers. This isn't the worst thing, considering the way everyone now thinks of midrange shots, but you're in trouble when your opponent is hitting said shots. And, man, the Hornets were draining EVERYTHING from midrange in this game. Per my count (I'm using a shot chart here, so bear with me), on shots inside the arc and outside the paint, Charlotte finished 20-35 in the game, a sizzling 57%.
Obviously if you're the Clippers you'd rather have the Hornets taking these shots than open threes or easy layups, but there isn't much you can do if the attempts are falling that consistently. L.A.'s rotations could've been quicker, though, and it's something they'll need to address as the regular season draws closer.
Doc tried to go small midway through the third with a lineup of Smith-Pierce-Lance-Crawford-Prigoni, and the results left quite a bit to be desired. Charlotte's big man tandem of Cody Zeller and Spencer Hawes (I know, Spencer Freaking Hawes) had their way with this Clipper combination. Pierce had no hope of overcoming the substantial height disadvantage defensively. Naturally, the Hornets wasted no time in targeting him. There was also zero offensive spark from this unit, to go along with questionable rebounding and no rim protection. I'm not trying to be overly negative here, it just looked that poor.
The Clippers wound up getting blown-out, but there were positives to draw, still. Wesley Johnson played well, though he was promptly banished to the bench after his positive start in the first quarter. We didn't see him from the 5:41 mark of the first until the beginning of the third, curiously. Prigioni looks more than capable of handling the offense whenever CP3 needs to rest, and Stephenson, too, looked comfortable on the ball. Pierce didn't play well at all (and looks really weird sans headband), but he's Paul Pierce. He doesn't need to be busting his ass in a preseason game. He's going to be fine.
Charlotte's Jeremy Lin (quite the popular figure in China, as you may have imagined) looked good in this game (16 points, four assists, three rebounds), and I mean that in every way possible. Seriously. Get a load of his hair (pic via Justin Russo).
The Clippers have fallen to 1-2 this preseason, though only three meaningless games remain before the real campaign begins. The next preseason affair will take place against these same Hornets in Shanghai on Wednesday.