Tonight’s game is far more agonizing than it needs to be, in large part because the Clippers insist on waging a perimeter battle against a team they should be exploiting inside. After a stellar first quarter during which the Clippers use Randolph down low to engage the Thunder on the block, the Clippers lull themselves to sleep with a procession of long jumpers. Al Thornton starts the trend at the outset of the second quarter when he opts to shoot over Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison — both big defenders whom Al should take off the dribble. In the third quarter, the Clippers go 1-7 from beyond the arc. It isn’t until a gorgeous high post set at [4th, 9:48] that the Clippers remember that their path of least resistance goes through Randolph low. Baron Davis has it up top on the near side against a pesky Earl Watson. Randolph steps high, then slips the screen and dives toward the hole when the Thunder traps Davis on the action. Davis tosses a side pass to Paul Davis at the top of the arc. Then Davis immediately sends a little touch pass to the cutting Randolph deep in the paint. Randolph finishes with a single dribble, then an easy lay-in with his left. The Clippers have a seven-point lead, their largest margin since early in the second quarter. The Thunder calls timeout.
There’s satisfaction in opening the discussion of a victory with a gripe. Less than two weeks ago, the Clippers were so desperate it would have been verboten to find fault with a W. But now the Clippers resemble a decent professional basketball team. Despite an aggregate record of 7-17, the Clippers are 5-4 with their current starting unit, over a stretch that’s included six road games and wins over a couple of very solid teams. Their spacing looks better and their offense is running more fluidly. A successful team has to discover some basic truths about itself, and the Clippers seem to have stumbled upon a few: Zach Randolph’s sphere of influence is the right block — as deep as possible. Preventing mismatches will mitigate the space cadet factor among the team’s weaker defenders. Allow Baron Davis to savage smaller guards in the post, and slower guards off the dribble. Cover the perimeter — and you can afford to, because Camby can take care of the middle and a lot of the penetration.
Eric Gordon is 18 for his last 27 from the field, and averaging 16.3 ppg over the three-game winning streak. EJ finds his range tonight from long-distance, but his smartest play might be at [4th, 7:15] when he uses Russell Westbrook’s momentum on the close-out against him, then drives strongly down the gut of the lane with his left, before shuttling the ball over to his right for the finger-roll. He does nice defensive work against Westbrook early in the game when the Clippers build their first-half lead, fighting through Johan Petro screens and playing the passing lanes. He anticipates a Damien Wilkins pass in transition at [1st, 6:47] to break up a 3-on-2 Thunder break. EJ’s maturation as a defender will be one of the more interesting things to watch as the season develops.
“Bench scoring” is often ascribed more meaning than it deserves, but the Clippers’ reserves need to offer more than 10 points in 53 minutes. Dunleavy seems content to let the matchup dictate the depth chart at PG. Against slower halfcourt teams like Portland, or against a less offensive minded backup like Anthony Johnson, he’ll use Mike Taylor to push the pace. Against a team that prefers to play in the open court, like Oklahoma City, he’ll sometimes opt for Jason Hart. It’s a handy menu of options for Dunleavy, though both need to hit a higher percentage of their shots for it to be a serviceable platoon. The Clippers will have tremendous depth up front when Kaman returns, but a Baron Davis absence of any length would be devastating.
The Clippers are a better team right now than Chicago, but they’ll face dual challenges on the perimeter — the multifaceted Derrick Rose, and Ben Gordon, who has been deadly over the past couple of weeks or so.