The game isn’t without moments. For a couple of minutes at the beginning of the fourth quarter, DeAndre Jordan looks unreal. He opens the period by unfurling a beautiful post sequence on the left side against a good defender, Chris Andersen. Jordan catches the ball in the post, faces up, then takes a hard dribble into the lane with his right. In one assertive, fluid motion, he collects the ball, drop-steps, spins clockwise toward the basket, then elevates with a left-handed lay-in over Andersen. About a minute later, Jordan throws down a power jam off a perfect drag S/R with Baron Davis. Jordan finishes 8-8 from the field for 21 points, eight rebounds, two blocks in 25 minutes without a turnover.
Apart from that, the Clippers are woefully undersized against a dominant Denver team that scores 120 points in fewer than 100 possessions. The Clippers don’t have any wings who can defend either J.R. Smith or Carmelo Anthony, and get buried under the Nuggets’ artillery. Mike Taylor has made the last couple of weeks a lot more palatable, but it’s fair to say a one-on-one Smith-Taylor matchup isn’t one that favors the Clippers on the defensive end. It’s no one’s fault, there simply aren’t enough healthy bodies for the work.
Eric Gordon has one of his poorest offensive efforts of the season, much of it against Dahntay Jones, who denies Gordon space from the game’s first possession. At the outset of the game, I decide to observe how Eric Gordon defends Chauncey Billups. Billups isn’t the quickest or most explosive point in the league, but he knows how to use a screen extremely well and can work himself a surprising amount of space for his jump shot. He also knows how to use his strength to get where he wants to on the court, and is never afraid to draw contact against his defender. With little else to glean in Game 76 from a team missing three of its top six, this seems like a good opportunity to see how Gordon handles one of the strongest, craftiest guards in the game.
In Gordon’s first two tests [1st, 10:30; 1st, 9:28], he handles a couple of high screen very well. This is part of an early stretch when the Nuggets come out of the gate sluggish. Billups senses this and the next trip down [1st, 8:58], he attacks Gordon early. Eric isn’t expecting it and gets beaten off the dribble, which ultimately gives Billups a good angle and forward momentum to hit Dahntay Jones in the left corner for a 3PA that falls. Fault Gordon a little for allowing Billups to advance, but Jones from 23 feet isn’t a bad outcome for the Clippers.
Eric works well with his teammates throughout the night on S/R defense. At [1st, 7:40], Denver goes to a 1-3 S/R. Gordon draws Carmelo Anthony on the switch, and Fred Jones must feel grateful to have a defensive assignment — if only for a moment — to whom he’s not giving up four inches. Billups opts to fire an 18-footer over Jones, his only miss of the night. At [1st, 5:56], Gordon and Brian Skinner defend the Billups/Nene S/R to perfection, trapping Billups, pushing him to the far sideline. This gives Skinner plenty of time to recover. Nene offers another screen, this one to Gordon’s right. Eric reads it and fights over it with ease. Gordon legitimately bothers Billups, who dishes it over to D. Jones in the corner. Baron has sloughed off Jones, who isn’t a strong offensive player. But with plenty of time and a clean look, Jones drains the shot.
Denver has some big bodies, and Eric absorbs their weight all night — this might be a contributing factor to his off night on the offensive end. At [1st, 7:15], the Nuggets run a basic UCLA cut on the left side as Billups tries to rub Eric off Nene at the elbow. Nene is a big dude and Eric wobbles a little figthing through the back screen, but he stays with Billups as he cuts through to the far wing. [Denver executes the back end of the play really well, with the ball going to Nene at the elbow, then to Anthony on a basket cut. And one.] At [1st, 4:55], Gordon dodges one screen up top by Johan Petro, but gets caught on the second one. Billups is able to turn the corner and breeze past Zach Randolph into the paint. Billups gets into the box, but his pass to Nene is tipped away by Brian Skinner who steps up as the last line of defense.
Billups and Gordon’s closest engagement of the night comes at [1st, 1:57]. Anthony offers Billups a very close screen. Gordon feels around it, staying in front of Billups. Next, Billups drives right, trying to rub Gordon off Anthony, but again Eric stays between Billups and the hoop. About 15 feet out, just above the left baseline, Billups begins to back Gordon down. Billups spins baseline with his left, but Eric gives him no space to maneuver. Falling out of bounds, Billups flips a behind-the-back pass to a diving Petro, who gets fouled on the dunk attempt. A ridiculously inventive play by Billups coming off a dogged defensive stand by Gordon.
Chauncey records his first points of the night at [1st, 4:30]. On the break, Billups steers directly at a backpedaling Gordon, then fakes a pass to his right, which dekes Eric just enough to give Billups the path he wants to the hole. Jones fouls Billups at the rack, but the finish slides off the rim. Billups’ first FG of the night comes in the second half, at [3rd, 8:56] when he gets Gordon hung up on a Petro screen after the Clippers deny penetration earlier in the sequence. Funny thing about that Petro screen is that Eric anticipates it, is ready for it, but hesitates for a split-second while he figures out if he has enough space to squeeze over Petro. He ends up trailing, which gives Billups all the space he needs to dribble left a couple of steps, then launch an open jumper from the top of the key. Not the worst transgression in the world — Billups has executed this about 1,000 times.
Does Eric make good decisions once the ball leaves Billups’ hands? There are two primary instances when Billups remains a perimeter threat up top once he delivers a pass into the post. At [1st, 6:17], Gordon cheats a little too far off Billups for my liking, as Billups stands at the top of the arc after feeding Nene with an entry. Gordon isn’t the help by any stretch, but he drifts toward Nene and the ball nonetheless. Nene drop-steps, faces up, and hits. Gordon doesn’t pay this time, but a return pass to Billups could’ve yielded an open 3PA. At [2nd, 4:18], Eric plays it more carefully when the ball goes into Anthony in the post, sticking much closer to Billups along the perimeter.
When Mike Taylor checks in for Baron Davis in the third quarter, Taylor picks up the Billups assignment, and the bigger veteran immediately goes to work against the smaller rookie. Billups converts five quick points, the first three on a step-back 3PA, the second beating Taylor around a screen from Anthony. Billups scores eight points in the 3rd quarter, and finishes the game with 12.
On what might be Eric Gordon’s worst offensive night as a pro, he exhibits some of his best defensive work — even as the Clippers hemorrhage as a team. The Clippers’ big men aren’t effective down inside as Nene, Petro, and Andersen go 12-17 from the field and earn seven trips to the line. Through little fault of their own, the wings are outmanned, though some of the damage is self-inflicted. But against Billups, Gordon does solid work, giving up virtually no shot attempts to a guy who’s hit a lot of big ones.