It seems ridiculous to sanctify grown men for doing their jobs, but the Clippers’ few remaining healthy bodies play a gutsy game this afternoon. “Clippers Point Guard” is now the NBA’s equivalent of “Spinal Tap Drummer.” Today’s spontaneous combustion? Fred Jones — today’s starter at PG — who follows Mike Taylor, Baron Davis, and Jason Hart to the shelf when he limps off the court less than three minutes into the game with a sprained right foot.
Jones’ departure leaves Mardy Collins as the ranking Clippers point guard. Despite a woeful 1-7 afternoon from the field, Collins finishes with 12 assists, though he has trouble facilitating much of anything in the second half. There isn’t a logical defensive matchup for Collins, and once it becomes clear that only Eric Gordon has the capacity to contain the Pistons’ penetrators, Mike Dunleavy makes the wise decision to go to a zone for much the remainder of the game. The Clippers pay for it somewhat on the offensive glass, where the Pistons pick up 15 rebounds for second chance opportunities. On balance, though, I’m not sure Dunleavy has a choice against Iverson and Stuckey, not to mention Tayshaun Prince, who is much more dangerous as a slasher than from beyond the arc.
Eric Gordon’s 31 points are impressive, but even more so because he operates as the Clippers’ clear first option today offensively. Of EJ’s 26 possessions, 14 result in points [9 FGMs, 5 pairs of FTA], 12 in misses for a true shooting percentage of 59%. Did you know that Gordon is 3rd in the league among starting shooting guards in that category, behind only Ray Allen and Roger Mason?
Let’s take a look EJ’s 14 successful possessions, specifically how he creates the shot opportunities:
- [1st, 10:45] Detroit starts with Allen Iverson on Gordon, but will rectify that later when Rodney Stuckey moves over to pick up EJ. On the Clippers’ second possession of the game, Gordon and Camby run a high S/R. Gordon splits the defenders en route to the hoop, but Amir Johnson gets his hands in to tip the ball out of bounds. The Detroit back line seems almost surprised by Gordon’s penetration through much of the game. Underneath, Thornton inbounds the ball to Skinner, with EJ stationed at the top of the arc. EJ dives to the hoop, and Skinner times a good bounce pass to him at the foul line. EJ gets the ball, takes a hard dribble with his left, then attacks the rim, successfully drawing the contact against Johnson. There’s so much to like here: Working off the ball to create the opportunity. Going aggressively to the hole. Not being afraid to draw the contact. In short, it’s everything you want from your shooting guard off the dribble. Gordon sinks the FTA. [3 points]
- [1st, 9:57] Very next possession. After the Clippers collect the rebound off an ill-advised, off-balanced Al Thornton jumper with :11 left on the shot clock, the Clippers reset with Jones up top. Here, EJ starts on the left wing. He then runs a baseline curl, rubbing Iverson off two screens — Brian Skinner on the near block, then Camby along the far sideline. EJ spots up a couple feet inside the arc on the right side. He catches, squares, and shoots. Perfect. If EJ can get a step on his defender running around low screens on a regular basis, then he’s going to have a very nice career. [5 points]
- [1st, 4:59] Mardy Collins picks Rodney Stuckey’s pocket, and EJ quickly fills the far lane in transition. Collins leads him with a crisp cross-court pass that Gordon catches in motion just before the arc. He still has to beat a lanky Tayshaun Prince to the rim. As Eric takes off, he twists his shoulders about 90 degrees counterclockwise to protect his right-handed layup. Very nice. [7 points]
- [1st, 3:39] The Pistons get crossed-up defending a baseline inbounds play underneath the Clippers’ basket. When Gordon and Camby converge then bounce out to the far and near wings respectively, Stuckey is under the impression that he and Kwame Brown are switching. Brown thinks otherwise. This leaves EJ open to spot up in the far corner beyond the arc. Thornton delivers EJ a good bounce pass. [10 points]
- [2nd, 5:48] This is a straight push. The Clippers grab the long Tayshaun Prince missed jumper. Paul Davis gets it ahead to Gordon at halfcourt. EJ quickly reads the Pistons defense, and sees that he has only a backpedaling Aaron Afflalo between him and the basket. EJ shifts into high gear, going right at Afflalo, who continues to backpedal…but much faster. Gordon changes speeds again, taking a little stutter-step before launching himself. Afflalo mugs him, and Gordon sinks both FTAs. Good recognition by Gordon: Sometimes the disparity is so high between the likelihood of obvious contact vs. the probability of getting off a clean layup that it’s not worth trying to achieve the latter when the former is so easy. Gordon realizes that, and it pays off with two points just the same. [12 points]
- [2nd, 2:34] A strange set. Gordon dribbles with it on the right side. Camby comes up, but slips the screen. When he does, Jason Maxiell elects to stay with him. This leaves Iverson one-on-one against Gordon. EJ has a clear path to his right, but he doesn’t explode to the rim. Instead, he deliberately dribbles forward, with Iverson moving with him to his left. When, at 10 feet, EJ sees that Maxiell is about to step up to help, he tosses up a running floater, which drops. Not Eric’s prettiest shot of the afternoon, but when it’s working, it’s working. [14 points]
- [2nd, 1:37] A Clippers fast break is ignited by a Marcus Camby blocked shot on the other end. Collins picks up the ball and races upcourt. We’ve seen how good EJ is at filling that right lane in transition. Collins hits EJ with a good bounce pass just inside the arc. EJ gobbles up the pass, elevates at the edge of the paint, then flushes with a two-handed slam. In general, Eric Gordon makes terrific decisions in transition for a 20-year-old rookie. Compare your confidence in Gordon on the break to, say, an Al Thornton, Cuttino Mobley, or Corey Maggette — the last two of whom were veterans with the Clips. [16 points]
- [2nd, 0:13] With :31.2 left in the half, Collins milks some clock. Gordon is set up in the right corner guarded by Tayshaun Prince. The ball is eventually worked around to EJ. The instant it hits his hands, Eric decisively drives baseline with his right, beating Prince by a step. Antonio McDyess’ help is late, and he fouls Gordon. The trip to the line is a successful one. [18 points]
- [4th, 11:17] Gordon doesn’t score in the third quarter, when Detroit tightens the screws defensively. Stuckey does a nice job running through screens and denying the Clippers the switch on the high S/R. To start the 4th, Dunleavy goes with Gordon-Thornton-Novak-Camby-Jordan, which leaves EJ as the only ballhandler on the floor and Thornton, effectively, as the 2. This is a stagnant set for the Clippers. You can see DeAndre Jordan dive to the hole courtesy of an elbow screen from Novak. The Clippers’ rookie center leaps in the air for an alley-oop, but Gordon wisely resists lobbing the ball. With nothing else materializing, Gordon tries to create with a left-handed drive up the gut of the lane. He does so with the clear intent of drawing contact…and he does. Another two from the line. [20 points]
- [4th, 4:00] Gordon scores all 11 of the Clippers’ points in the game’s final four minutes. After a wacky play with multiple deflections, the Clippers inbound the ball beneath their own basket in the corner. EJ runs past an elbow screen from Camby to receive the ball on the left wing. Eric dribbles to his right along the arc with Stuckey playing him close. The two guards get tied up and the foul is called on Stuckey, his fifth. The Clippers are in the penalty. Two more at the line for EJ. [22 points]
- [4th, 2:59] Tayshaun Prince blocks Gordon’s layup on a coast-to-coast break. Mardy Collins grabs the deflection and dribbles out to the perimeter to reset. The Clippers trail by two. The Pistons’ defense is scrambled, with Iverson left guarding Gordon on the left block. Sometimes basketball can be serendipitous. Gordon is that low only because his layup was blocked. Iverson is guarding him only because Detroit never has a chance to set themselves defensively. But Camby recognizes the mismatch and quickly feeds EJ in the post. EJ takes a hard dribble with his left, and muscles his way past the much smaller Iverson to get himself an easy 5-footer. Tie Game. [24 points]
- [4th, 2:20] The Clippers are down two again after a pair of Prince FTs. The Clippers isolate Gordon on the right side against Aaron Afflalo. Camby gives Gordon a ball screen, and EJ turns the corner with a left-handed drive. He’s beaten Afflalo, but now the entire defense converges on him in the paint. Gordon won’t be deterred. He goes up strongly, drawing the contact from Prince while still attempting a circus layup. Another two from the line where he’s now 11 for 11 [26 points]
- [4th, 1:05] A more dire situation with the Clippers down four. Gordon doesn’t wait for the screen up top from Camby. He takes Afflalo off the dribble and also has to contend with McDyess who stayed low when Camby moved up to set the screen. Gordon drives anyway. He fights his way to the glass for the layup, changing hands on his way up. He’s mauled by McDyess in the process, a call he’ll get in a couple of years. [28 points]
- [4th, 0:21.9] Clippers down by two with a little under :40 to go in the game. Collins kicks it left to Gordon up top against Afflalo. If EJ drives, he’ll have Novak in the left corner if Stuckey decides to collapse. As Gordon drives left against Afflalo, Stuckey stays home, leaving Gordon with a one-on-one. Camby lures Johnson far enough to the weak side to ensure that no Detroit big can help. Gordon’s burst is strong and decisive. When Afflalo makes contact inside of 8 feet, EJ absorbs it, squares as he’s in the air, and kisses the runner off the glass for the bucket. He goes to the line where he finishes a perfect 12-12 day. More important, the Clippers lead by one. [31 points]
The goaltending call on Thornton to give the Pistons an 88-87 lead with 0:2.8 seconds remaining is the correct call. If it’s any consolation, Iverson’s teardrop probably falls through the hoop if Thornton isn’t there to swat it away. The most disappointing decision on the play is not Thornton’s block attempt, but Camby biting on Iverson’s shot-fake way beyond the arc. Imagine if Camby stays back and guards the lane. Does Iverson have that path? Probably not.
For the final 0:02.8, Michael Curry sticks Prince on Gordon up top. Gordon drives left. Stuckey, who was guarding Collins on the inbound, doesn’t think twice about leaving Collins on the perimeter to help. Gordon elevates just beyond the elbow for an off-balanced jumper. The ball hits off the iron, and the Clips lose by one.
Gordon finishes with a career-high 31, and greater than 20 points for the 7th time this season. He’s entering rarefied air among Clipper rookies. The team hasn’t had a home-grown product arrive so far, so quickly since Lamar Odom’s rookie season in 1999-2000.