This season, a procession of visiting coaches delivered identical pregame bytes to the media prior to taking the court against the Clippers. “I told my guys that this is a talented NBA team they’re facing. The Clippers have a lot of guys who can play.” The 2008-09 Clippers’ team managed to sell expectations of its talent until the final days of the season. They’ve existed in a platonic force field ruled by the idea that the design could work, if only… That dynamic generates a powerful intensity that’s hard to let go of. Most 60-loss teams don’t achieve spectacular failure, they just lose lots of games. The 08-09 Clippers are one of the exceptions, and they’ve made for an ugly, but captivating, subject. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but over the past few days, I’ve been hit by a strange pang of sadness at the thought that, after Wednesday, we won’t see the 08-09 Clippers ever again.
As much as Utah wants to improve their playoff position tonight, they’re more intent on shaking the funk that’s been afflicting them the last couple of weeks. They use the Clippers to run a full-contact practice, honing their array of low screens, and flex cuts. The game is never in much doubt after the first quarter, but it isn’t without some stylish flourishes:
- Deron Williams, Professional Point Guard [2nd, 0:05]: The Jazz collect a Clippers’ miss and have to push it coast-to-coast in fewer than five seconds. As Deron Williams barrels his way to half court with his right — Steve Novak backpedaling in front of him — Williams pins Novak’s arm with his left wing, then flails toward ths sideline, heaving the ball downcourt. Novak draws the whistle. What’s brilliant about Williams’ maneuver is the heave downcourt. With :02.1 second remaining, even if the whistle doesn’t come and Clippers run down the ball, they can’t possibly score. Instead, Williams goes to the line for two FTAs.
It’s hard to discuss Williams as a ballplayer in any but the most abstract terms. You can’t talk about explosiveness or his lethal jumper. The assets in Williams’ game are more cerebral. They’re about his timing of passes, knowing when space is about to open up on the floor, being 1.8 seconds ahead of everyone else on the floor in a halfcourt set. They’re about plays like the one above. Williams probably won’t have much of an opportunity this spring to reacquaint people with his talents, and that’s our loss.
- DeAndre Jordan, Curiosity [4th, 5:18]: Jordan produces the highlight of the evening, if not for igniting his one-man break, then for provoking a sound from Ralph Lawler that I’ve never quite heard before, but one that I hope somebody will document for posterity on YouTube. Jordan tips an entry pass from Williams to Carlos Boozer away from the post. There’s a scrum for the ball, which bounces high toward halfcourt. Virtual jump ball. Jordan comes down with it in the open court, takes a single dribble with his left, launches from his pivot just off the right elbow, sidesteps Kyle Korver, then throws it down with a two-handed slam. “LOOK AT THAT! LOOK AT THAT! WHO WAS THAT?! WHO WAS THAT?!” Lawler squeals.
- Brevin Knight, World-Beater [2nd, 10:05]: That’s probably overstating things, but the Jazz control the tip in a Brevin Knight-DeAndre Jordan jump ball. I’d be curious to know how many jump balls in NBA history have been won by players shorter than 6′ 0″ against players 7′ 0″ and taller.
- Davis/Kaman S/R, Novelty Act [1st, 7:40]: When you conceive of the Clippers in that platonic force field, they’re executing stuff like this every trip downcourt. Basic slip screen on the left side. Mehmet Okur and Wiliams run a trap at Baron, and he heaves a pass between the two defenders that hits a rolling Kaman. One dribble, no hesitation, perfect footwork, easy layup. I realize that most teams aren’t going to trap Baron Davis off a high screen if he puts up 1-13 nights from the field, but Davis and Kaman are two guys who should be able to generate a proficient two-man game, especially if they have a deadly 2 somewhere on the perimeter to space the floor.
- Eric Gordon, Patenting Finishes [2nd, 1:53]: From the left corner, Gordon swings around a stagger screen along the arc [first Kaman, then Camby]. Fred Jones hits Gordon in stride with a bounce pass at the right elbow. Kyle Korver does a nice job running through the roadblocks to stay close to Gordon, and for an instant he catches up and gets between Gordon and the basket. Eric is too strong. As Korver challenges him, Eric draws the contact while elevating for the lay-in. It’s a finish we’re getting to know pretty well: Eric drives down the right side of the lane. As he raises his right shoulder to deliver the ball from his right hand into the hoop, Eric twirls counterclockwise about 110 degrees, so he’s facing the court as lands on the baseline. The ball kisses off the glass and falls through the net.
For reference, you can see the same finish from his 41-point game against OKC at the 0:12 mark:
Eric Gordon gives Clippers fans one reason to hope. Florida International University gives them another.