First things first. Let's talk about the elephant in the room. The giant 23-point lead elephant in need of a heimlich maneuver from all the choking it's been doing. Yes, last night was depressing. I can't remember the last time I was so excited during a game to watch the Clippers prove all the haters wrong by stepping on a team's throat only to see them lose in the end (I can remember, it was Game 6 vs. Houston, but I've chosen to pretend that disaster never existed). Emotional reactions are healthy after a tough loss; it shows how invested fans can be and is one of the tragically beautiful parts about sports. But, at some point we have to pick ourselves up out of the gutters and try and see the silver lining on the horizon. And with that, here are 4 takeaways from last night to help you keep perspective.
1. Last Night was Unsustainable for Both Teams
This is nothing to takeaway from the Warriors' win last night. It's more meant to understand last night's loss was not as monumental, or trend setting as many people will want to claim. It's easy to look at the highlights or box score and feed into the narrative the Clippers are chokers that can't close or hold leads, or that the Warriors will never lose again. The fact is last night was an outlier for both teams.
The Clippers built a 23 point lead in the first quarter and remained up double digits for all of the first half because the team was incredibly hot. Chris Paul hit his first 7 shots in a row. Blake was 8 for 12. The team as a whole in the first frame was 17 for 24, shooting 71% and 5-6 from deep. If you think the Clippers can keep that up for 48 minutes then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, unless Billy King has already traded it with an unprotected first rounder. Meanwhile Steph Curry and Draymond Green picked up early dumb fouls, contributing to the lead.
Likewise, the Warriors got even hotter than the Clippers in the 4th quarter. They shot 11 for 15 in the final quarter, including 8 for 9 from behind the arc, putting up 39 points. I get that Steph can go nuclear at any moment during a game, see November 4th, but still I would bet if you played that quarter 10 times, that's the only time the Warriors shoot 89% from deep. I mean Iguodala is a career below average shooter, and Barnes is shooting 34% on threes for the year. We can talk about how the Clippers defense gave up open looks to those players, but guess what, that's the price you pay when you play aggressive, hard hedge defense. When Curry demands that your bigs stay up with him and show, it leaves the rest of the team in scramble mode requiring pin point rotations. Color me not surprised Jamal Crawford and Paul Pierce didn't accomplish those rotations and gave up open shots. Also, it just seemed like on 50-50 balls, somehow it would end up in Curry's hands for a wide open three. Is that the defense's fault? Maybe, but it's also just bad luck.
I don't want to take away from the Warriors making shots when they needed to, or absolve the Clippers from not protecting a lead, but at the same time I'm not really sure this game is very telling. Both teams got really hot, the Warriors just got hotter later.
2. J.J. Redick Didn't Play
Speaking of the Clippers cooling down at inopportune times, a big reason for that is the absence of sharp shooting J.J. Redick. As I've mentioned before in my season preview for Redick, he is often the key cog to the Clippers offensive machine and their scoring MVP; the team throws away a third of their playbook when he hits the bench. His absence wasn't felt as much when the team was supernova in the first half, but when the Warriors decided to bare down and bring it on the defensive end in the fourth quarter, it was obvious how much the Clippers missed J.J.
Speaking of the Warriors defense, it's helpful to remember they are really good, like number 1 in the league last year. For all the Clipper fans talking about the return of Vinny Del Negro offense in the fourth quarter or Chris Paul hero ball, let's give some credit to the Warriors. Luke Walton made a key switch in putting Klay Thompson on Chris Paul late, which allowed the Warriors to switch and defuse every Blake and CP3 pick and roll. Draymond Green is a terrific defender, and more than smothered a not 100% Paul. The natural reaction then is to go with the mismatch from the switch, Blake in the post against Klay, but the Warriors were doubling Blake and swarming him on the catch or his first move. Golden State is incredible in doubling the post, being able to react and rotate on a string; it's the key to their small ball lineups. What also helps is the fact they weren't respecting Jamal Crawford's shooting ability on the double team. I'd bet with Redick out there instead of Crawford, Curry or Barnes thinks twice about leaving him free on the weak side, that and there would be much more off ball action occurring.
3. Diagnosing Doc's Decisions
I'm not going to say that fans don't have a right to question a head coach and his decisions. Coaches aren't infallible, and can make mistakes during the game that smart observers can pick up on. I myself was wondering why Lance Stephenson didn't see a second in this game. With Jamal in the starting lineup, it appears like Doc's preseason prediction of Lance as a playmaker/defender off the bench would work perfectly. But nope. There are enough smart people that have talked about Doc's rotations and subs that I don't feel the need to rehash it, but I will add this caveat.
Doc knows more than I do. About basketball, about the team, and about each player. For all I know Lance could be struggling with an injury that wasn't reported, much like fans weren't aware Dudley was hurt for much of his tenure. Or maybe Lance blew up in practice and did something to get himself disciplined internally. Or maybe Doc just understands that Lance was maybe the worst player in basketball last year, and he's trying to bring him along slowly. There is an untold amount of knowledge that is not privy to me that Doc has available, so unless you think he is a colossal idiot, keep in mind he probably has reasons for his decisions, even if you may disagree.
Plus, Doc has shown some signs of mixing and matching in his lineup and rotations. Wes played a lot last night. Mbah a Moute has received some burn against Detroit. There are so many new players on this team that I'm sure he's using the regular season as a laboratory to find the best combinations and players for the playoffs.
4. The Clippers Are About to Go on a Run
Be unhappy about the Clippers' slow starts, but also acknowledge it is not debilitating. If the Clippers win tonight in Portland that will put them at 7-5. Last year through 12 games, the Clippers were 7-5. Every single year the Clippers have had Chris Paul, they've started 8-5. If we can glean anything from the past couple seasons with the Clippers, it is not to overreact to the first month of the season. This off season, like many in the past, has brought with it turnover and that takes time to adjust and find cohesion. Also, the Clippers and Doc understand that the priority is to be playing their best in May when the playoffs come around.
Another big factor to take into account is that the Clippers have had the hardest schedule of any team in the NBA this season, all while dealing with injuries to Paul and Redick. Take a look at the Clippers' upcoming schedule and start to lick your chops. In the next 15 games, the Clippers should be favored in almost every one of them, with Chicago and the Toronto posing the biggest challenges. It was at this same time last year the Clippers ran off 9 straight, taking 12 of 13, and finding their stride as a team.
I expect the same thing to happen this year. This team is about to go on a run. They will win 12 or 13 of the next 15, stand at 19-7 or 18-8, and the narrative will shift as it always does. Keep faith Clipper Nation.