One number jumps out from the box score: The 24 turnovers. Squandering more than a quarter of possessions signifies a sloppy team– and by a fair measure, the Clippers are pretty sloppy tonight. Somehow, though, this game stirs an earnest hope. Gutsy performance would be the rote characterization, but the feeling is more transporting than that — it’s witnessing an impression of a likable Clippers team, even if only for a couple of hours.
The Clips fail with honor. The vast majority of the turnovers are born of overambition, maybe a little carelessness, but not laziness. Even the errant passes look like plays that could potentially be executed in the future. When the Clippers were up 19 on Cleveland, you sensed it was because the Cavs were playing down to their level. Tonight, the Clips repeatedly answer New Orleans at several junctures and come up short only when confronted with the unanswerable.
Take a look at the Clippers’ distribution of shot attempts:
Gordon — 19
Randolph — 18
Kaman — 12
Davis — 9
Jones — 8
Taylor — 8
Novak — 5 [in 9 minutes before being taken off due to injury]
Skinner — 3
Divvy up 82 shot attempts among those eight guys, and you’ll likely come up with a list that deviates very little from tonight’s distribution.
The most gratifying basketball is played during a two-minute stretch toward the end of the first half when the Clippers shave off the Hornets’ 39-32 lead with a 9-0 run:
- [2nd, 5:13] The Clippers have Davis-Gordon-Novak-Randolph-Kaman on the floor against Paul-Daniels-Butler-Marks-Armstrong. The most favorable matchup for the Clips is an obvious one. Off a cross-screen from Eric Gordon, Zach Randolph goes to work in the right post against Sean Marks. Ever notice how the good teams seem so decisive in their offenses? It helps to have a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James. But the good Detroit teams, D’Antoni’s Suns teams, even the 05-06 Clippers won a lot of games simply by recognizing and exploiting the best matchup on the floor. Randolph is so good in isolation man-to-man against a slower defender, and once Baron quickly clears out to the weak side, there’s nobody to help Marks. Randolph puts his left shoulder down, takes two hard left-handed dribbles toward the paint, rumbles into his jump stop, then muscles to the rim with a left-handed hook. The basket and the foul.
- [2nd, 5:07] Taylor is now in for Novak, so the Clips are very, very small [Davis-Taylor-Gordon all on the floor]. Off the successful Randolph FT, Chris Paul pushes it up, but the Clippers swiftly get back. Once they reset, the Hornets want the Paul-West two-man game. First, West holds the ball up top while Paul tries a back cut, but Gordon does a good job of staying between the ball and Paul, so CP returns for a handoff. West’s ability to patiently stand still while Paul lures both defenders to the backcourt side of West is brilliant. West waits until Kaman and Gordon scamper to either side of him before he rolls to the side, where Paul hits him with a pass. Randolph offers good weak side help, but it’s still not enough. An open 22-foot jumper isn’t a bad shot for West, but here it falls halfway down before popping back up. Kaman nabs the rebound and shovels the outlet to Gordon.
- [2nd, 4:50] West now guards Randolph. He plays a little off Randolph which, given how Randolph just drove on Marks, makes a lot of sense. This time, Randolph steps back and drains an 18-footer.
- [2nd, 4:40] Any team that gives up 104 points in 95 possessions isn’t playing an efficient brand of defense, but here the Clippers do a competent job on the Daniels/West S/R up top with Baron/Randolph. With Kaman cheating to the ball side, Gordon is left on Sean Marks on the weak side block. Daniels has used the action up top to get an angle for an entry pass to Marks. The pass is at Marks’ feet — catchable, but nothing Marks can do much with. Daniels is a ballplayer with average talents, but a good head. He realizes that the only thing Marks can do with the slippery ball is tap a little bounce pass to a guy cutting down the lane. Daniels decides to be that guy. Marks delivers, Daniels picks the ball up in stride, but missses the layup. Randolph secures the rebound and the gets the ball to Eric Gordon.
- [2nd, 4:18] Gordon pushes it up. He drives all the way from the backcourt into the gut of the lane, while Mike Taylor spots up on the right side. As Gordon penetrates, he kicks the ball out to Taylor. Earlier in the period, Taylor takes an impatient 23-footer at the beginning of the shot clock and misses. This time, he uses the space in front of him for a drive. As Taylor hits the paint, he’s met by a trap. Taylor’s instinct here is good: He sees that Randolph’s man, Marks, is the help, so he tries to get the ball to Zach by threading the pass through the two defenders. The ball grazes Paul’s leg, which results in a turnover.
There will come a day when Mike Taylor will execute that pass flawlessly. There’s no fault in his trying tonight.
- [2nd, 4:10] Paul orchestrates the Hornets’ break. He’s got Daniels ahead of the pack and lobs a perfect bomb two-thirds the length of the floor that lands directly in Daniels’ hands. As Daniels elevates for a layup from the right side, Baron Davis flies in from behind and slaps the ball against the glass. A second earlier, Baron had tried to tip the pass, but fallen just short. He never gives up on the play. Chris Kaman grabs the loose ball at the foul line.
- [2nd, 4:04] Kaman sees Randolph across half-court and fires an overhead pass to Zach just before the arc. Randolph has plenty of space — he also has Eric Gordon filling the far lane all by himself. Zach opts to launch the 3PA, which is wide right. It’s not a horrible shot, though Gordon has a much easier two. The ball clanks off the iron and bounces toward the left corner. Taylor squirts in front of Marks and, diving into the floor seats, saves the ball inbounds. Both Paul and Davis scamper toward it. I’m not sure there’s anyone as covetous of a loose ball in the NBA as Chris Paul, but on this play Baron Davis is every bit as ruthless. His swipe at the ball carries him into a sideline cameraman. Paul comes up with the rock, then glides into the lane with West on the left side of the glass. Paul dishes the ball to West, but the layup attempt is blocked by Kaman. Gordon hunts down the ball.
- [2nd, 3:47] The ball works its way upcourt to Baron Davis up top on the left side against Rasual Butler. Davis uses a Kaman screen to his right to unleash a filthy crossover that gets Butler off-balance. Davis dribbles into the lane, then leaves the ball at the left elbow with a casual [doesn’t rhyme with Rasual] no-look tip backward. Kaman picks it up seamlessly, takes one step, then lays it up and in.
In the parallel universe where the Clippers are a healthy, yet enigmatic 41-34 club, this kind of stuff happens all the time.
- [2nd, 3:22] After an off-ball foul by the Clippers that Chris Paul thinks are worth two foul shots, the Hornets get it on the side. Just as the ball comes inbounds, Paul gets whistled for a shove while he’s trying to get some space off Taylor. Clippers ball.
- [2nd, 3:20] This is a play the Clippers run a lot. [I believe it’s called 45] It’s usually Baron at the point, but on this set it’s Mike Taylor with the ball, while Baron is on the weak side as the 3 [largely out of the play]. After passing the ball to Gordon on his right, the PG [Taylor] cuts low. He’ll set a screen to free up Randolph off the right block. Gordon then delivers an entry pass into Randolph at his spot. Gordon’s man [Julian Wright] immediately leaves to double low on Randolph. Zach does a great job of anticipating, and returns the ball back to Gordon. Wright tries to recover and Eric thinks about launching it from 23, but instead leverages Wright’s unsteadiness and blow by him en route to the goal for a vicious slam.
How does he get a clear path? Kaman does a nice job screening the basket area so West can’t help.
Normally, the last 2:20 would warrant a close examination, but Chris Paul doesn’t mastermind this win as much as he wills it. When the Clippers trap him against the baseline [4th, 2:05], he hits his first cutter through the defenders. When the Clippers show and recover to perfection on the first three screens of a set [4th, 1:28], Paul settles for a step-back, off-balanced 20-footer that he drains with :04 seconds remaining on the shot clock and Baron in his face [4th, 1:20]. When the Clippers try to trap him to the left of the screen [4th, 0:36], Paul dices through the defenders with ease, then dashes to the hole and sinks the floater. It’s indefensible, particularly with no shot blocker at the rim.
The final two minutes are deflating, but the sum total of the night, most notably that the Clippers have designs to play good basketball, offers some nourishment.