Leadership requires more than charisma. It’s something that a player earns when his personal achievement translates to big wins for his team. Baron Davis has been the nominal leader of the Clippers since he signed his five year, $65 million contract in July 2008, but neither Baron nor the Clippers have approached anything resembling real and sustained achievement. Responsibility for that failure can’t be assigned to Baron exclusively, but it’s hard to cultivate leadership beneath any part of that shadow.
Tonight at the buzzer, Baron Davis starts that process in earnest.
It’s not the most balanced shot, nor is it one that would be well-advised in most contexts, but none of that matters Sunday evening with 1.0 second remaining.
The Celtics make some critical errors tonight. A moment before Davis’ big shot, Rajon Rondo misses a pair of free throws in a 90-90 game. Prior to that, Ray Allen makes a disastrous decision to collapse on a driving Davis with fewer than 15 seconds left. With the Clippers needing three to tie, there’s no reason for any Celtic defender to leave a perimeter sniper open for an uncontested 3-pointer. Yet, both Allen and Eddie House slide over to pick up Baron at the expense of leaving Rasual Butler and Eric Gordon alone on the arc. Butler is the easier pass for Davis.
The preceding two Celtic possessions are conservative — even passive — and don’t produce good looks at the basket. Both Allen, who misses a 21-footer off the dribble after moving right of a Perkins screen, and Rasheed Wallace, who misses a 3PA from the right corner, are capable of draining those shots, but a team with Boston’s collective skills should generate better opportunities for itself. Credit the Clippers for defending well inside of two minutes. They blunt the Rajon Rondo-Kevin Garnett pick-and-roll down 90-87 with about 1:20 remaining (resulting in the Wallace miss), then ward off a Garnett screen for Ray Allen with under :30 left in the game, still down three. Jordan closes nicely on Allen while, most importantly, not committing a foul.
More generally, Boston’s biggest strategic gaffe of the game might be its eagerness to play isolation in the post rather than frustrate the Clippers with rotating pick-and-rolls. The Celtics operate a lot of their familiar stuff with Garnett, Perkins or Wallace offering high screens for Rondo, with Allen curling up from the baseline. But for much of the game, they prefer to run the offense through Garnett and Wallace for shots (mostly fadeaways) and passes to exploit DeAndre Jordan and Brian Skinner. While championships have been won working the best mismatch on the floor, the Celtics aren’t able to establish any prolonged offensive rhythm apart from a brief stretch to start the second half. Wallace and Garnett combine to go 9-for-29 from the field in 55 minutes, with only a single trip to the line for a pair of FTAs (Garnett).
DeAndre Jordan gets the biggest of his 14 career starts, and he does well for himself in unspectacular fashion. As important as this game is for Baron, it might be more vital to Jordan. In 36 minutes, DeAndre gets a true sense of what being a starting center in the NBA means: It’s a blue collar job. For every thundrous one-handed alley-oop, there is a mile of backpedaling on Rajon Rondo at full speed. For every gaudy rejection that flies into the crowd, there are 50 instances when Kevin Garnett or Rasheed Wallace needs to be kept off the glass. This isn’t pleasant work, and it won’t rouse teammates on the bench to their feet. But that’s the gig, and Sunday Jordan puts in a solid day’s work.
The Clippers assemble a quality defensive effort. They induce a disproportionate number of low-percentage shots from between 10 and 23 feet, and contest the perimeter with sharp close-outs. And they do it all repeatedly after falling behind, which might be the most encouraging feature of the defensive work after a week when they allowed manageable deficits to become insurmountable in three different games. The rotations off pick-and-rolls are fairly prompt, though Rondo still gets to the rim far more than he should. That’s especially true given how Tony Allen’s presence on the floor in place of Paul Pierce allows the Clippers’ help defenders to move around more freely. The Clips are more selective about sending help for Jordan and Skinner in the post, and lure Garnett and Wallace into launching a barrage of long-range jumpers.
There won’t be many nights when Gordon’s true shooting percentage is below 50 percent while the Clippers post an overall TS percentage of 58.2 percent. Both Davis (80.2 TS%) and Kaman (60.5 TS%) are incredibly efficient. When you imagine Baron Davis in ideal form, it looks something like this game: 24 points in 15 true attempts — only six of those 15 outside the paint. Whether it was Jordan, Gordon or Craig Smith finishing at the rim, or Butler on the final kickout, the bulk of the Clippers’ best shot attempts against Boston are the product of Baron’s execution. Baron’s 13 assists match his season high (W at MIN; W at PHA). Against the Celtics, Kaman helps the Clips more as a jump-shooter rather than trying to outwit the C’s big men off the bounce. Kaman leads all scores with 27 points. Against Boston, Kaman helps the Clips more as a jump-shooter rather than trying to outwit the C’s big men off the bounce. The Clippers desperately need every ounce of that efficiency because they squander 16 of their 90 possessions on turnovers, and cough up a dozen offensive rebounds to Boston, while claiming only four of their own.
Last February’s improbable win over Boston at Staples Center was supposed to be a character-builder, but the Clippers went only 4-20 the rest of the way. This win seems more substantial, and its details — things like better shot selection, keeping opponents off the line with honest defense, and trust — can be seen all over the game footage. Once the Clippers can incorporate those elements into their game on a consistent basis, these wins will seem less like novelties — but they’ll still be fun.