Last season the Clippers offense rarely made defenses pick their proverbial poison. They were a pretty easy assignment defensively: Hang tight on Gordon, double Randolph in the paint, and let Baron’s decision making on his poor shots take care of the rest. Most nights, this defensive strategy worked beautifully for opposing coaches.
Well, that was last season. This season, largely due to Chris Kaman’s dominance, opposing defenses are forced into tough decisions every single possession. Let’s take a look at some of the starters who pitch in offensively (Baron, Gordon, Butler) and the one who carries the load (Kaman) for the Clippers tonight.
Baron Davis has a special offensive spurt tonight. In the second quarter with 3:17 remaining and the Clippers down 9, Mike Conley inexplicably starts yapping at Baron. It’s hard to understand exactly why Conley would start jawing with Baron, who is practically the Steve Smith of basketball when it comes to these things, but he does, and he pays for it. Baron rattles off 8 straight points on a variety of one-on-one moves where he just absolutely overpowers the smaller Conley. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: Every single night, the Clippers will have a mismatch with someone on the block. Tonight, it’s both Baron and Kaman. As long as the offense continues to run though the post, the Clippers will be an efficient offensive club.
Eric Gordon pops in and out of the game more than usual tonight, and at multiple points in the first half he looks visibly frustrated with his lack of involvement in the offense. This leads to him forcing a few uncharacteristically bad looks. To Gordon’s credit, he displays an incredible amount of maturity by honing in on his defensive assignment, O.J. Mayo, instead of pouting about not getting the ball. Although Gordon’s a secondary option offensively tonight, his defensive focus results in him holding the electric Mayo to 4-12 shooting for 8 points.
Rasual Butler isn’t exactly gun-shy tonight, shooting a team high 17 shots. Shooters shoot their way out of slumps, and luckily for the Clippers Rasual shot out of his at the right time, nailing a few key jumpers late in the game. It has to be frustrating for Al Thornton to be benched largely because of his poor shot selection, then watch his replacement jack up 17 shots, many of them contested. When asked after the game if he was comfortable in his role coming off the bench, Thornton answered with an emphatic “No”.
Chris Kaman absolutely destroys Marc Gasol tonight to the tune of 26 points. Every game, Kaman seemingly passes a new test. Tonight, he shows again that he can score on body types similar to his (Gasol) as well as extremely long defenders (Thabeet). As long as Kaman continues to knock down his jumper, there is literally no way to stop him in one-on-one coverage. Kaman’s deadly in half court sets, and he’s well aware of it. He talked about this after the game tonight with Kevin Arnovitz:
“I think that’s where we’re better, half court basketball. We have a couple guys who can run, but our bigs aren’t running guys. I’d rather play in the half court, where I can see everything come together – I know where I’m going to be, and know where my teammates are going to be.” – Chris Kaman
The Clippers did seem content to match buckets through the first three quarters, and didn’t really step up the defensive intensity until about halfway through the fourth. Even though this victory wasn’t resounding or very impressive, there were still a few valuable traits the team exhibited in crunch time.
Refocused Defense: The Clippers showed they have the ability to withstand an opposing star’s big night and adjust accordingly with the game in the balance. Rudy Gay (33 points) was sensational offensively for the Grizzlies, particularly when it came to getting to the rim and drawing contact. Through three quarters, Gay had more free throw attempts himself than the entire Clippers team (13-12). The difficulty of Gay’s shot selection eventually caught up with him though, largely in thanks to some stout perimeter defense from Rasual Butler. Gay was held to 1 for 6 shooting from the field in the fourth quarter after starting the game 10 for 14.
Smelling Blood: Getting to the line has been an issue all year for the Clippers, and it was again tonight for the first 45 minutes. Through three periods the Clippers attempted only 12 free throws, compared to 28 from the Grizzlies. At times Eric Gordon appeared to be the only Clipper willing to foray into the paint, however he’s struggling to receive calls when he does. The Clippers are and will continue to be a team that relies heavily on their jump shooting ability, so it was nice to see them attack when they were in the bonus with the intensity level raised. The 4th quarter free throw totals show a more aggressive Clippers team: Clippers 21 FTA, Grizzlies 4 FTA.
Riding the Hot Hand: Tonight’s game was a big testament to the importance of having depth. With Marcus Camby struggling to find his jumper and his place in the offensive game plan, Craig Smith answered the bell by playing crunch time minutes and provided a huge spark off the bench (18 points in 23 minutes, and his first career 3 pointer). Is there another player in the league that can put up 18 points without having a single set ran for him? Sebastian Telfair was the other big contributor off the pine tonight, with a solid 21 minutes filling in for the foul beleaguered Baron Davis. The Telfair-Smith combo is not only creating instant offense and producing at critical times, but they also happen to be resting two of the older, more injury prone Clippers (Baron and Camby) in the process.
Ideally, you’d like every game to be like the one the Clippers played against Golden State on Friday night. However, learning how to win a close game isn’t something to be discounted. There are many hurdles a bad team must overcome on the road back to respectability, and winning a tight game against any opponent should always be viewed as a step in the right direction. They may be baby steps, but they are steps nonetheless.