Tonight’s game reads like a Russian novel — between Zach Randolph’s return, Steve Blake’s improbable choke at the stripe, Baron Davis’ epic redemption at the end of regulation, Brandon Roy being Brandon Roy, Eric Gordon’s man-size drive to the rack in the first overtime, Al Thornton draining that must-hit jumper with 0:20 in regulation after having sat for most of the 4th, the defensive adjustments on Roy, the unheralded performance of the bench at the start of the second period to get the Clippers back in front. All of it amounts to unquestionably the best game for the Clippers in the past 14 months.
With about 5:00 remaining in regulation, Mike Dunleavy has a decision to make. It’s a juncture in the game when Dunleavy would normally reinsert Al Thornton for the stretch drive. But Brandon Roy is absolutely destroying the Clippers in man-to-man defense. Dunleavy opts to stay with Mardy Collins as the primary defender on Roy, and instructs the Clippers to be much quicker on the Roy double-team. Dunleavy’s dilemma speaks to the Clippers’ biggest problem: They don’t have a wing who can both defend a player like Brandon Roy and not kill them offensively. The gamble pays off. Notwithstanding the chippy Collins misses on an easy transition opportunity out of that timeout at [4th, 5:47], the Clippers manage to contain Roy for the remainder of the 4th quarter, and keep themselves in the ballgame. Collins finishes the game with a +18 — the high man for either side. The only shots Roy hits against Collins the rest of the way are an insane, off-balanced, leaner from the foul line [4th, 0:28], and a quick pop from 20 feet at [2OT, 3:58]. When Roy goes 3-4 from the field in the first overtime, it’s against Baron Davis with little help. Once the Clippers counter with Collins-and-a-smarter-double in the second overtime, the Clippers take control of the game.
Any larger conversation of this game has to begin with Zach Randolph. For all of Brandon Roy’s exploits, he and Zach finish with identical scoring numbers: 38 points, 15-30 FG, both perfect from the line. Zach appears a little nervous at the outset in his return to Portland. He misses his first three jumpers out of the gate, and doesn’t convert until Marcus Camby hits him underneath the basket at [1st, 4:59] with a touch pass on the most aesthetically pleasing break of the night for the Clips. After that, Zach gets rolling. The next trip down, Zach flashes high to set a screen for Baron on the perimeter — but Zach slips the screen, freeing himself along the arc for a pass from a double-teamed Baron. Zach gets a wide open look at a 3PA, which he drains.
With the bench struggling as of late, Dunleavy decides to yank Randolph with a little more than three minutes to go in the first, then insert him with the second unit to start the second quarter. It’s a smart move for no other reason than it gives Mike Taylor someone to go to in the post. Taylor doesn’t get a shot off in 16 minutes of action, but he plays one his best games as the Clippers’ backup point guard and gets a community achievement award for assisting Mardy Collins on his only FG of the night. By the time Baron re-enters the game in the second, the Clippers have turned what was a 6-point deficit at the end of the first quarter into a two-point lead.
Then there’s Baron Davis, the mercurial, irrepressible, inscrutable Baron Davis. Two Barons, two possessions:
- [4th, 0:18] The Clips trail 96-94. They’ve gotten a reprieve on three Steve Blake missed FTs. They inbound it on the far side with their primary offensive lineup. Naturally, it goes into Baron in the halfcourt. He’s got Brandon Roy in front of him. At about 0:12, Baron gets a high screen from Randolph. More important, Baron gets the switch he wants — 6′ 11″ LaMarcus Aldridge one-on-one. Baron puts the ball on the floor and drives left. He might’ve been better off pulling up at 15 feet for a jumper, but he decides to take the ball all the way to the hole. Unfortunately, Greg Oden awaits. Baron realizes he’s not going any further. There’s about 0:9.5 left on the clock when Baron spins to pass out. Before he looks left, though, the ball has already left his hands. Steve Blake jumps into the passing lane and secures the steal. A horribly ill-advised pass by Baron, though Eric Gordon could’ve made life a whole lot easier for BD by sliding over and coming to the ball. Instead, EJ lingers in the corner about a second too long. Still, with time left on the clock, Baron has to take another second or two to find something better.
- [4th, 0:7.8] Incredibly, Steve Blake misses one of two free throws, leaving the door cracked open, 97-94. The Clippers have been awful in these last-possession situations, working themselves poor shots, when they even get a look. Baron will inbound on the near side. Steve Novak has entered the game for Camby to give the Clippers another 3-point threat. Novak sets a zipper screen for Eric Gordon, but EJ can’t quite get free. The Clippers might not get the ball in! Finally, Randolph moves to the sideline, and Baron gets it into Zach, who immediately hands it back off to Baron. Rudy Fernandez pesters Baron as the Clippers’ PG moves right along the arc, desperate trying to find a little room to launch a 3PA. At 0:2.6, Baron plants his feet, gives Fernandez a little upfake, which buys him just enough room to get off the 3PA at the buzzer. Good.
In the first overtime, Baron tries to maintain control of the game, but finishes 2-6 from the floor in the five minute period — though he sinks his first attempt to give the Clips a 3-point lead, and a jumper to give the Clips a 2-point cushion with 20 seconds remaining. On the other end, Dunleavy assigns Baron to guard Brandon Roy. Mike Smith rightly points out the strange decision by the Blazers to open the period by going into LaMarcus Aldridge in the post against Marcus Camby. Twice. After Aldridge misses both shots, the Blazers wisely return to Roy. Portland makes it very difficult to double Roy because they go with a 1-4 isolation with everyone else set up down low. How do you send the double? Leave one of the two post players? Leave Fernandez or Blake in the corners with no one in close proximity to rotate? It’s a tough call and requires uncanncy quickness. Sure enough, when Roy blows by Baron with 1:18 remaining, Gordon leaves Blake in the corner to help. The result — Blake 3PM, Roy assist. The final 57 seconds of the first overtime is mano-a-mano combat between Baron Davis and Brandon Roy:
- [0:57.7] Clips by two. Dunleavy reinserts Mardy Collins but, oddly, keeps Davis on Roy. We see that 1-4 offense. Roy wastes no time. He’s so good at modulating his speed on a drive. He goes left, slows, spins, elevates, and nails the jumper. Baron doesn’t stand a chance. The double never comes. Tie game.
- [0:48.8] Baron/Randolph S/R, and again, Baron gets Aldridge on the switch. Baron’s crossover catches the taller defender off-balanced, and his 16-foot jumper is true. So long as Baron has Aldridge in front of him, he isn’t going to give the ball up…nor should he. Clips by two.
- [0:27.1] It’s the 1-4 again. Roy backs Baron in to about 10 feet. There’s no help from anywhere. Easy fadeaway jumper over his left shoulder. Tie game.
- [0:15.8] Here, Baron gets Nicolas Batum on the switch from Thornton way up top — a much quicker and tougher defender. Still, Baron manages to cross him over, drive right, and get a decent look at a 19-footer. The shot isn’t close. We go to a second overtime.
The Clippers take control of the second overtime early by hitting their first three FG attempts — all of them by their big men:
- [4:16] Baron delivers the ball to Collins on the far side wing, then curls around to set a back screen for Randolph, so that Zach can break to the low post and set up there against Aldridge. Collins dumps it into Zach, who faces up against Aldridge. He brings the ball low, rocks, takes a couple of dribbles to his left, then steps back and drains an 18-footer. Just as the Clips need to double Roy, doesn’t Nate McMillan have to think about sending someone over to double Randolph, considering the Clippers have an offensive cipher like Collins on the floor? Even if he sends Oden, it’s not as if Randolph can hit Marcus across the floor against 13 feet, 11 inches worth of defenders.
- [3:33] Is this a called set? Collins holds it up top against Fernandez. Baron works off the ball, ultimately setting a back screen on Oden for Camby at the right elbow. Camby dives to the hole where Collins hits him with a gorgeous lob. Hallelujah. The Atlantic-10 Connect.
- [2:41] Exact same set as the first possession. Collins out on the wing; Baron sets the back screen for Randolph, who darts to the right post; Collins feeds him there. But this time, Aldridge is playing Randolph tighter. So what does Zach do? He takes a hard dribble right, drives baseline, blowing by Aldridge for an easy, easy layup. Where’s Oden? Camby had drawn him out to the left elbow. Smart, smart play by the Clips all the way around.
On the other end, LaMarcus Aldridge — who has terrific skills — becomes the unlikely focal point of the Blazers’ offense in the period. In part, that’s because the Clippers are doing a much better job on Roy. At 3:12, the Clippers send help quickly when Roy receives the ball at 22 feet. At 2:30, they trap him at 25 feet. At 1:55, the Clippers defend the Roy/Oden S/R brilliantly, trapping Roy and rotating Camby over onto the rolling Oden. Roy is forced into a dribble-drive against the double-team and misses the layup. At 1:06, the Clippers can almost smell a win. They lead 116-108. Roy gets a screen from Oden out along the arc, but Collins sniffs it out, and Roy launches his shot with Collins’ hand in his face. Aldridge tips in the miss, but the Clips still lead by six with the ball and just over a minute remaining. When Baron gets his layup blocked on the next possession, the deflection ends up in the hands of Eric Gordon. He fires a jumper that tickles the strings. Clippers 118-110 with 0:41.9 left.
Portland is the second-best rebounding team in the league, and the Clippers claw all night on the glass to stay with them. The Clips do a better job covering the corners — even though it means not always sending help when advisable. The Clippers also play a smarter brand of basketball. It’s not just that they limit themselves to 9 turnovers in 58 minutes. They make intelligent decisions. Why is Oden less of a defensive presence down low with only a single block and nine defensive boards in 42 minutes? Because the Clippers wisely use Camby and Randolph away from the block when they want space for penetration. Randolph plays a particularly heady game. He devours Aldridge, mixing up his dribble-drives and his face-up jumpers, putting the ball on the floor when he knows he has a step on the defender, and stepping back when he’s given just enough room. Eric Gordon takes a sensible range of shots, going 6-8 from the floor [6-9 if you count the halfcourt shot at the end of the 1st], forcing only a couple, and playing off the ball more effectively, leading Blake into some screens to free himself up.
Tonight, the Clippers put up an offensive efficiency rating of 113.2 on the road against a good team. Clippers fans have been wondering what the platonic ideal of this team looks like when it functions as a coherent offensive unit. Now they know.