This was nothing more than a glorified rec league game. This isn’t said to insult the talented players who suit up for both the Clippers and Timberwolves, or the coaching staffs of either team. Surely there were many displays of athleticism shown on the court tonight that you will never see at your local gym. Still, like many a rec league team, the Clippers coasted throughout the game because they had already subconsciously decided they were far superior in talent, and as such were incapable of losing. Misguided confidence in tow, the Clippers sleep-walked through the first stages of the game, looking like a team that was struggling to find the motivation to do the little things against an inferior opponent. Sometimes, like in both New Orleans games, this mindset and lack of effort can create a hole too deep to crawl out of. Tonight, the Clippers got bailed out by a few superb individual performances, and the over-pressing play of an anxious and inexperienced Timberwolves team with the game on the line.
Tonight was likely the last game Eric Gordon will sit out with his groin injury, and his return couldn’t come any sooner. The Clippers offense has been heavily dependent on three main sources since Gordon has been sidelined: Chris Kaman, Al Thornton, and Baron Davis. Tonight Baron and Kaman combine to go an awful 7-30 from the field, leaving the bulk of the scoring load on Thornton and some surprise contributors in Camby and Telfair.
The previously mentioned Al Thornton went off for 31 points on 11-16 shooting, and did so by shooting all but two of his field goal attempts inside 17 feet. It’s amazing what a few adjustments in Al’s game has done for his efficiency, and it’s also semi-ironic that this current version of Al brings two things the team desperately requires; a scorer who attacks the rim (9-9 from the Free Throw line) and an offensive rebounder (6 offensive boards). With Gordon coming back, there may be concerns about Al’s decrease in touches, but fret not; Al has seemingly learned that he can create his own opportunities without the ball. Just watch him when the ball enters to Kaman in the post – he dives hard to the hoop most every time, and in doing so places himself in great position to receive a pass or to put back a miss. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: Dunleavy and the rest of the staff deserve some credit for the work they’ve done with Al this year. He’s transforming his game under their watch.
Marcus Camby once again proved valuable tonight by wreaking havoc all over the floor and putting up one of the more impressive stat lines you’ll see all year: 12 points, 18 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 assists, 3 steals and 1 block. Camby is widely praised around the league for his workman like demeanor, and tonight he truly was one of the few Clippers who decided to show up for all 48 minutes. Camby’s incredible motor and ability to score off tip ins and put backs make him a perfect fit for any club. If the Clippers choose to move him around the trade deadline, there will not be a shortage of suitors for his services. He’s an ideal veteran presence, and tonight served as a nice reminder on how important Camby can be to this team. Take away a few of his plays in the first three quarters, and maybe the Clippers are looking at too big of a deficit to overcome.
If Baron Davis were a quarterback, he’d undoubtedly be Donovan McNabb. Both guys share quite a bit in common. Both are considered incredibly streaky with their play. Both are susceptible to games where they consistently miss their targets and turnover the ball. Both are injury prone and are constantly scrutinized (usually unjustly) by their collective fan bases who push hard to trade them or bench them. The reality is McNabb and Baron are both above average at their respective positions, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they routinely play beneath their immense talent levels. Tonight’s performance by Baron is akin to one of those late November games from McNabb where he rockets the ball at his receivers feet all game, but finally connects for the game winning touchdown. Baron was horrible tonight in every measurable category, but his game clinching layup partially salvaged his stinker of a game. Partially.
Sebastian Telfair was the guy who stepped in for a struggling Baron, and he provided great results. Bassy played the role of scorer and knocked down perimeter jumpers all night in route to a 17 point performance and a game high plus/minus of +9. Telfair has proven that he’s more than capable of running the Clippers offense, particularly in late clock situations. Telfair likely won’t shoot this well every night, but when he shows he has his jumper going he’ll be hard for Dunleavy to sit back down. We saw a glimpse of the Baron-Telfair backcourt combo, but that’s likely going to be a rare occurrence because it doesn’t appear to be a viable strategy offensively or defensively against most teams.
It took all game, but eventually the Clippers defensive rotations became respectable, and the previously easy entries to Al Jefferson in the post became much more difficult for the Timberwolves perimeter players to make. The strong post denial play of Craig Smith held Al Jefferson to zero shot attempts for the first 8 minutes of the final period. Jefferson recorded zero points and three turnovers in that time frame, which allowed the Clippers to build their largest lead of the night (8 points), and finally gain control of the contest for good.
While the Clippers may be talented, they are not nearly good enough to make a habit out of this type of performance through three quarters, particularly on the defensive end. This line of thinking isn’t a disconnect between fans and franchise; Dunleavy’s post game mood, despite the win, could probably be best described as “somber”. Most every Clipper fan wants the team to come out and methodically destroy lesser opponents by thirty points, but this can’t, and won’t, happen with any sort of regularity. NBA players are human (most of them, anyway) and are prone to the same mental laziness that resulted in your rec league team only beating that out of shape, yet surprisingly plucky team of accountants by three. Maybe you shouldn’t be happy about the win, and you definitely shouldn’t be proud of it, but at the end of the day, a win is a win.