For about five halves of basketball — the Detroit game, Dallas game, and the first 24 minutes in San Antonio — the surprising, scrappy Clippers played an appealing brand of hustling, aspirational basketball.
At some point in the third quarter of the Spurs game, that label expired.
Tonight, Eric Gordon appears tired and exasperated by the double-teams and collapsing defenses smothering him in the halfcourt. He’s not getting any calls and that’s clearly starting to annoy him, too. He has his string of 20-point games snapped at six, finishing with 15 points, on 52.3% TS. Peja Stojakovic, of all people, does a solid job in the first half denying Eric space.
Al Thornton gives the Clippers very little. In 79 minutes of basketball over the past two nights, Al hasn’t seen the foul line once, primarily because he’s abandoned his dribble game. 12 of his 13 shots tonight are jumpers, nine of them from beyond 15 feet [2-9 FGA greater than 15 feet]. He finishes with 11 points.
As a team, the Clippers light up the floor in the first half, shooting 57% from the floor. But they’re down 13 at the break, largely because of their charitable zone defense. Any outright dismissal of strategy has to be couched in very clear terms: The Clippers, as presently constituted, aren’t going to win many games at New Orleans or at San Antonio — no matter what kind of defense they show. Having said that, whatever is gained by having the Clippers play zone can’t possibly compensate for what they give up…say, for instance, 11 3PAs in the first half, almost all of them wide open looks.
There’s a reasonable argument for the zone against a dynamic penetrator like Chris Paul. If he beats his perimeter defender off the dribble, then there’s a back line to help. What’s strange about the first half is that the Clippers stay with the zone, even during the 11 minutes Paul isn’t on the court. The Hornets were fielding a team of spot-up shooters against some decent man defenders in Collins, Gordon, Jones, Skinner, and Camby. [You can also argue that Camby essentially functions as the basket defender in a one-man zone, but that's another post for another day.] Whatever shortcomings Al Thornton might have as a man-to-man defender, you’re certainly better off assigning him to stay at home on Peja Stojakovic than you are trusting him with the intricacies of a zone, aren’t you? Only Leonard Hamilton knows for certain, I guess.
The Clippers ultimately abandon the zone to start the second half. They do a reasonably decent job on the Hornets through much of the third quarter, progress that unfortunately coincides with a miserable shooting stretch. The Clips score only three points in the final 6:45 of the third quarter, on a fluke three-point play underneath by Brian Skinner.
There’s still no definitive timetable for the return of Baron Davis, Zach Randolph, or Chris Kaman. Randolph actually calls into the broadcast in the first half and chats with Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith. Two important things come out of the conversation: Randolph confirms to an incredulous Lawler that his nickname is dervied from Tiny Lister’s character in Friday, and that he’ll step foot on a basketball court next week for the first time since his injury.