Opening night is always a little dizzying. It’s difficult to measure the new versus the familiar, and to banish what you want to forget while still recalling the stuff that’s useful to remember.
Though all five Clipper starters Tuesday night are alumni of last season’s miserable squad, it’s clear that the 2009-10 Clippers are a measurably improved team.
A few notes:
- This is a far better conditioned squad, and it’s evident in Chris Kaman’s arms, in the team’s third quarter run, and in the fact that the Clippers rack ass all night, never taking a single possession off. There’s a reason the Clippers were a lousy third quarter and an awful rebounding team last season: They were out of shape. Basketball is a frenetic, aerobic game and there’s absolutely no way to remain competitive if you can’t match your opponent’s physical effort. The Clippers lose the game, but not because they can’t endure.
- The Clippers do little to help themselves in the first quarter: Nine turnovers and a barrage of contested jumpers, compounded by the decision to go small when Marcus Camby runs into foul trouble. I had a chance after the game to ask Mike Dunleavy about his reasoning. “[Ron] Artest and [Lamar] Odom are quick for the big guys and and big for the small guys,” Dunleavy said. “That’s their strength and advantage. You’re always trying to play that game. That’s actually one of the spots where we really miss Blake. He’s our big guy who can play the smalls and make them work.”
I don’t envy any coach who has to match up against Odom, but I think the Clippers — who are already compromised in the defensive post against a team like the Lakers — give up too much by going that small that soon.
- Craig Smith’s second-quarter explosion is a highlight of the evening, and offers a flashback to 2006 at [2nd, 8:22]. It’s a play you saw the Clippers run for Elton Brand a thousand times: A guard (usually Cuttino Mobley) sets a cross-screen for Brand in the lane, as Elton dashes to left side for an entry pass against either Mobley’s defender or, at the very least, his own guy who is still recovering. Here, it’s Eric Gordon laying out a screen on Luke Walton as Rhino rumbles to the left block with Farmar now defending him on the switch. The Lakers are able to recover, but Smith has solid position as he takes the entry pass from Sebastian Telfair, and he dispatches Walton quickly with a baseline spin move and layup. It was a good set then, and it still is now.
- Eric Gordon has become a solid pick-and-roll player, and he demonstrates some nice interplay with his big men tonight. There’s a particularly good-looking possession early [1st, 10:05] when Eric gets a high screen from Marcus Camby above the left elbow. It’s a strong pick that takes Kobe Bryant out of the play and leaves Andrew Bynum backpedaling against a driving Gordon. Chris Kaman is set up on the right blow, covered by Lamar Odom. Once Eric beats Bynum, Odom is forced to collapse. So what does Eric do? What any good playmaker does — dishes the ball on the move to the wide open Kaman for an easy layup. It’s one thing to be able to penetrate, but it’s quite another to leverage that skill to create shots for others. Gordon has a tremendous night: 21 points on 16 true shots, with three turnovers and four assists (including this one), and it’s nice that he gets to do it in front of a national audience that rarely gets to watch his gutsy brand of ball.
- Given what they’re up against, the defense does solid work. The Lakers challenge the Clippers in the post all night, which puts a lot of pressure on the Clippers’ help defense. By and large, the Clips make sounds decision about when and from where to dispatch that help. There are a handful of blown rotations, but more times than not, the Clips are quick to the ball. They post a defensive efficiency rating of 98.7 for the game — a significant accomplishment against the Lakers, with or without Pau Gasol.
- Baron Davis and Al Thornton both fall victim to their lack of shot selectivity. Davis’ shot chart is especially ugly — 1-for-10 from the field without a trip to the stripe. The good news? The most efficient scorers take the bulk of the shots: 18 true shots for Kaman, 16 for Gordon and 13 for Camby. Thornton’s 4-for-11 is mitigated somewhat by his work on the boards: Nine total rebounds, which helps the Clips win the rebound rate 52/48.
Wednesday night’s matchup against Phoenix will tell us a lot more about the Clippers’ flexibility as a team. It will also reveal something about their resilience, because there are no moral victories at home against non-playoff teams.