There’s a sequence late in the fourth quarter of tonight’s game where Baron Davis is leading the break up the middle of the court. He’s flanked by Eric Gordon on his right, who trails behind Baron only slightly. Baron separates from the pack, and then does something that evokes memories of Sam Cassell: Baron yells at Gordon to run harder on the break, and physically points out to Gordon where he wants him to go. Once Gordon obliges, Baron leaves a beautiful dime for the suddenly streaking Gordon for the dagger layup and foul. The Staples crowd roars in approval, and the other Clippers maul Gordon with celebratory backhand slaps.
And that’s exactly the kind of thing an engaged Baron Davis brings to the table.
Right from the tip, it was visibly evident that Baron Davis had that extra “umph” ready for tonight’s game. The way Baron got himself going initially was from transition opportunities. At every turn Baron pushed the ball up the floor, running right up the backs of the Lakers defenders. Whether it was finishing plays himself or finding someone like Rasual Butler, who did an excellent job running the floor, Baron set the attacking tone for the entire team early. Baron brought the fight to the Lakers and ended up having his most productive night in a Clipper uniform as a result, scoring a season high 25 points while also putting up 10 assists and 5 rebounds.
If there are signs of Coach Dunleavy and Baron Davis not being able to co-exist, none were evident tonight. The issue with their relationship, and for that matter most relationships, is control. Baron is the point guard, so he naturally controls what happens out on the court, since he’s the one with the ball. If Baron doesn’t want to run, it’s not going to happen. On the flip side, it’s Dunleavy who also wants control, like any good coach should. What’s needed for this relationship to work is trust. Dunleavy needs to know that Baron is going to execute his game plan as best as possible, but more importantly Baron needs to know that his coach supports his decision making and has faith in him. Tonight, Dunleavy wanted to run and run some more. The game plan was smart — the Lakers played last night and had rubbery legs while the Clippers were fresh, well rested and hungrier than their counterpart. Baron executed Dunleavy’s plan to perfection, pushing the ball whenever he could. Tonight was player-coach synergy at it’s finest.
While the offensive game plan to attack and run at any opportunity was a good one, it was the defensive plan that was gold for the Clippers. The Clippers employed a trapping scheme tonight that worked wonders against the explosive Lakers offense, holding them to a 38.4 field goal percentage. The mismatch the Lakers attempted to exploit most was Kobe Bryant on the block against the much shorter Eric Gordon, but the Clippers doubled Kobe immediately on the catch on most occasions. The back line defense off those double teams was solid, and the attempts the Lakers get almost exclusively were deep perimeter jumpers from the right corner. The plan of making the Lakers jump shooters have to beat them worked well early on — the Lakers shot 2 for 10 from outside the paint in the second quarter and had most of their looks contested all night long.
After Kobe’s third quarter scoring rampage (17 points) against some tough defense, an unexpected hero came through while Baron Davis got a much deserved breather to start the fourth quarter. It was Craig Smith, he of some recent healthy DNP’s, who provided the desperately needed offensive lift. Again, credit Dunleavy for the coaching decision to put Craig Smith into this game. In the first matchup against the Lakers, Smith enjoyed a lot of success against the Lakers bigs, particularly against Lamar Odom. We saw that exact same matchup exploited again tonight in the clutch, and it paid dividends for the Clippers. Smith scored eight crucial fourth quarter points, with half of those coming on designed sets for him down the stretch. Coming into this game, it would be hard to imagine Craig Smith getting crunch time touches dialed up for him, but that’s exactly what happened, and it worked. After Craig Smith’s scoring run, the Clippers never looked back.
The Clippers won in a way tonight that the ’05-’06 playoff team won a lot of ballgames. The scrambling, trapping scheme employed was very similar to what made the Clippers so successful on the defensive end all those years ago. The leadership from the point guard position was there tonight, just like it was most every game with Sam Cassell. Even the late game post scoring with Craig Smith in those cross screen, post iso sets was reminiscent of what that team used to run for Elton Brand. The road map for success is there for all the Clippers to see: Win with defense first, some big plays from your point guard, and rely heavily on low post scoring and mismatches. You don’t have to squint to see some of the similarities between the two teams. The Clippers have a lot of work to do, but there’s no reason they can’t grow into a similar type of team. Tonight was a big step in the right direction.
With every win like this, the Clippers grow more and more confident. It’s too early to throw around terms like “culture change,” but there isn’t a player in the league who needs to believe in himself and have the faith of his teammates more than Baron Davis. We saw the effects of this in Golden State. If Baron can keep getting fed wins and the confidence that results from them, the outlook for this team suddenly becomes much brighter.