The postseason begins in 10 days, and even with the fourth seed still in contention, the Clippers weren’t likely to show us a playoff-ready A-game. And they didn’t, at least, not defensively, but with the scoring rhythm they’re rolling with right now, it takes an opponent with more talent (and rest) than the lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks to capitalize. Backed by Blake Griffin’s efficient aggression and a 22-7 fastbreak advantage, the Clippers casually handled the Mavs, 112-101, to inch within two victories of their fifth-straight 50-win season.
This game was rarely intense, but it wasn’t lacking in energy. Pace replaced physicality, and the two teams bounced around the floor in what resembled a sharp and almost joyful scrimmage. Guard play reigned for long stretches, with Chris Paul’s 5 assists powering a 22-6 launch over the contest’s first five minutes, a period over which the Clippers nailed all 9 of their field goal attempts and 4 threes. Paul danced around Dallas defenders while dropping teardrops long and medium. He finished with 22 points and 11 assists, although his 5 turnovers were indicative of the team’s and the game’s relaxed and jaunty feel.
Several other players left a positive mark, but Blake’s imprint measures most prominently. Rick Carlisle’s team never let this game get totally out of hand — COUGH BENCH COUGH -- but every time they made it interesting, Blake answered, mostly doing so from his once customary low block.
Blake punished Dallas’ attempts to check him with smaller defenders, plowing them into deep position where he built most of his 32 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Blake the Attacker was primarily responsible for drawing an unsightly 4 first-half fouls on Harrison Barnes, and his 10 free throws paced the Clippers as they toed the line 31 times. Box-score surfers might scoff at his paltry 4 rebounds, but who needs those when DeAndre Jordan is gobbling up 20.
OK, we can get back to the bench. Plus-minus isn’t the most informative statistic analytically, but it has its uses narratively. Paul, Blake, and DJ each finished +20 or better, while fellow starters JJ Redick (25 points, 5-8 3PT) and Luc Mbah a Moute followed closely behind at +14 and +15 respectively. And so it was by the struggles of the reserve unit that a game that looked, felt, tasted, and smelled like a runaway actually devolved into tight competition, even into the fourth and final quarter.
None of Doc Rivers’ backups finished on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger. Jamal Crawford demurred. He was scoreless, missing his only two shot attempts. Ray Felton lacked any creative spark. He provided only a single assist and missed each of his three treys. Mo Speights was attacked mercilessly in pick and roll coverage, which is explanation enough for J.J. Barea’s 14 points off the Dallas bench. The Clippers’ collective bench failure earned the starting group some extra and unneeded late playing time.
But an 11-point win is a win nonetheless, even if a bit unsatisfying. The Clipper offense was at its whirring best, good for a nearly 51/39/77 slash line. The defense may come around too, although it’s best days may await Austin Rivers’ return from injury. Three games remain, two against top competition. The Clippers may or may not show everything they’ve got. That’s OK, for the next 10 days.
- Harrison Barnes led the Mavericks with 15 points. His post-ups appear to be Dallas’ only one-on-one scoring option.
- Yogi Ferrell picked up Chris Paul from full-court on multiple occasions, and his 9 points in the early third quarter represented Dallas’ sole imposition on the Clippers’ starting five, as the Mavericks cut the 13-point halftime lead to 7. He finished with 14 points and 6 assists, tied for the team-high in dishes with Wes Matthews.
- Rick Carlisle was pessimistic about Dirk Nowitzki’s status for this game when talking to reporters last night in Sacramento, but the sultry shooter suited up and started in the frontcourt, scoring 9 in 28 minutes on a sore achilles. Seth Curry, a fellow starter, missed the game with a shoulder injury.