Familiarity is one of the true pleasures of following a pro sports team. It’s the same comfort you derive from turning on a really good TV series and knowing all the character attributes of Detective Jimmy McNulty, or Coach Eric Taylor, or Don and Betty Draper. The Clippers team of recent years was instantly recognizable by its principal players and its style, even if the team never achieved more than a conference semifinal berth.
Tonight’s victory is nice, but it’s also a little bit disarming. In previous years, you had a firm understanding of how and why the Los Angeles Clippers won or lost basketball games. Tonight, good things happen…but they’re not immediately perceptible, even if you follow the team closely. It’s the dizzying experience of making good money at the craps table, even though you haven’t quite learned the game yet.
How can we begin to make sense of a team whose most tenured starter is second-year man, Al Thornton?
The Clippers stage this victory with an impressive 13-0 run in the 4th quarter — a sequence during which the Clips capitalize on 5 of their 6 possessions, while denying Miami a single point:
- [4th, 6:06] Mike Taylor is running point for the Clips. Baron Davis, Al Thornton, Zach Randolph, and Marcus Camby are also out there. Eric Gordon is having his hamstring attended to on the sideline. The play call here is familiar — LA-1: A post set for Baron Davis. Rookie Mario Chalmers is a quick defender, but he’s no match for the stronger Davis on the block. Baron backs Chalmers down with his left shoulder, then dupes the rookie — and Udonis Haslam, the help defender — with a nifty baseline spin move. Miami 86, Clippers 82
- [4th, 5:43] With EJ out, Baron Davis has the Wade assignment. The Heat are slow to move. Wade eventually gets it over to Michael Beasley on the perimeter against Randolph. Beasley easily takes Randolph off the dribble, but as he reaches the paint, the Miami rookie runs into Marcus Camby. He kicks it out to Daequan Cook way out beyond the arc for a contested 3PA that’s no good. Credit Camby for the help on penetration, and Thornton for not sloughing off the shooter.
- [4th, 5:24] The Clippers have a serious size and strength advantage on Miami, and they’re going to exploit that edge to its fullest. This time it’s Al Thornton against the smaller Cook at the exact same spot Baron Davis converted just a minute ago. Al destroys Cook with an explosive dribble-drive and does everything but finish. Randolph is there to collect the trash on the tip-in. The Clippers finish the game with a 14-9 advantage on the offensive glass. Miami 86, Clippers 84
- [4th, 5:04] Miami has fallen in love with this hand-off/pick set up high with Wade and Beasley. The Clips double Wade as he receives the ball. Wade goes hard to the hole, then gives Haslam — wide open underneath because Camby has to help — a perfect pass that deflects out of bounds. Off the inbounds, Wade tries to create up top against Baron Davis. He works himself a little space for a 20-footer that doesn’t fall. Camby rebounds.
- [4th, 4:45] The Clippers push it up quickly: Taylor to Davis. Upcourt, Randolph has managed to slip underneath Haslam, and nobody is better at finding his guy underneath in transition than Baron Davis. In addition, few brutish big men have softer hands than Zach Randolph. The pass is beautiful, with pinpoint precision. Randolph converts the easy layup, gets fouled, and sinks the FTA. Clippers 87, Miami 86. The Clips won’t trail again.
- [4th, 4:25] Another hand-off for Wade up high, this time with Haslam. Mike Taylor and Camby do good help work here, and Wade kicks it outside to Cook on the weak side perimeter. Cook puts it on he floor and drives the gut of the lane, but has his shot swatted away by Camby. Unfortunately, Camby comes up limping. Enter Mardy Collins with :07 left on the shot clock. The Clippers have lost their size advantage and their best interior defender. Off the inbounds, the ball goes to Wade who, again, is met by a swarm of white jerseys in the paint. Wade kicks it out again to Cook, who misses a 20-footer with Collins in his face.
- [4th, 3:59] High S/R on the right side with Baron Davis and Zach Randolph. The Heat trap Davis and Randolph rolls to the hole, where he’s picked up by Beasley. Davis opts for Mardy Collins on the left-side perimeter. Collins loses the handle, and the ball squirts into the backcourt where Davis picks it up. The Clippers are now in improv mode with :08 left on the clock. It’s a S/R with Davis-Thornton. As Davis penetrates, Beasley helps, leaving Randolph wide, wide, wide, wide, wide open on the right corner. Davis finds Randolph, who drains the 3PM. Clippers 90, Miami 86. Prior to this season, Randolph had hit 53 3PMs in his first seven seasons in the NBA [he hit one in his first 4 seasons]. Power to D’Antoni.
- [4th, 3:47] This is an electric, why-you-watch-pro-basketball series. High S/R on the left side with Wade & Shawn Marion. As Wade moves right of the screen, Thornton gets his hand in, picks Wade’s pocket, and dashes with the ball into the open court. As Al drives the break, he’s got Chalmers in front of him and Wade in close pursuit. Al eludes the former, but as he goes up for the layup, Wade closes, then skies at the rim to swat Thornton’s shot out of bounds. Off the inbounds, Collins finds Taylor alone on the weak side for a good, open look from about 17 feet. The shot misses.
- [4th, 3:14] Miami’s offense is lethargic. Chalmers will lead this possession, and the best the Heat can come up with is Daequan Cook swinging around a screen for an 18-footer on the left side that clanks off the rim. Randolph is underneath for the rebound.
- [4th, 3:00] High S/R with Baron and Zach Randolph. Baron drives right. As he crosses the foul line, he lasers a short pass to Thornton who initially seems surprised. Thornton is inside the restricted circle. All this requires is a Dominique-esque double clutch by Al for the layup and one. Clippers 93, Miami 86.
Ramona Shelburne had an interesting post on Thanksgiving Day about Baron’s mood since the Randolph acquisition:
Baron Davis’ mood seems to have brightened considerably in the last week. Basically, as soon as the Randolph trade went down, and about the same time Eric Gordon and Mike Taylor have gotten it going. BD seems to really enjoy mentoring the rookies.
That rosier mood is easily detectable tonight. If you want to draw an optimistic prognosis off this game, it would go something like this:
The stylistic conflict between Baron Davis and Mike Dunleavy has been resolved with a logical — if imperfect — middle-ground. Each man gets something he wants from the new roster: Mike Dunleavy gets a big, physical team that can control the block offensively in the halfcourt. For Dunleavy, that model fits squarely into his comfort zone. Meanwhile, Baron Davis gets a guy in the post with soft hands who knows how to capitalize on his improvisational whims, and create opportunities with a little less structure [unlike Kaman, who needs a measurable amount of time and space to score]. Eric Gordon represents an appealing overlap of their sensibilities — a physical guard who can spread, slash, and defend. Marcus Camby can mitigate the defensive liabilities Randolph presents, which should lessen Dunleavy’s agita.
However you feel about the longterm value of the Randolph acquisition, this should make for some fascinating basketball.