The Clippers boarded their chartered jet on Monday brimming with optimism, eager to ride that euphoria into Memphis against a Grizzlies team that’s been basking in the warm glow of .500hood.
Respectability? The Grizzlies have been at that party for the better part of two weeks. Recent road wins at Phoenix and Portland have paced Memphis, and they enter tonight’s game at 18-18.
The news arrives just before game time that the Clippers will be without their leading scorer Chris Kaman, who is suffering from an ailing back. Marcus Camby, who is coping with a stomach virus, is in no shape to play. He valiantly takes the court, but never returns after checking out toward the end of the first period. The Clippers’ once-deep frontcourt thins out instantly, and it can’t come at a worse time against the NBA’s best rebounding team.
As hot as the Clippers start the game and as efficient as they are in the first half (65 points on 48 possessions), the Grizzlies surge past the Clips by overwhelming them inside. Memphis finishes with a 23-11 advantage on second chance points, and their front line of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay attempts 18 free throws in the second half by bullying the Clippers on the block.
It’s a dispiriting 12-point fourth quarter for the Clippers. They convert only four of 17 shots from the floor.
But the looks are clean. Immaculately clean:
Given that the Clippers have very little inside to work with on the offensive end, would you take those shots again tomorrow night? You’d be hard-pressed not to. Does that make the loss any easier to swallow? That depends on your perspective. Would you rather the team have an incapacity to create shots for itself or would you prefer they have those opportunities and just miss them?
Whatever the Clippers lose by Chris Kaman’s absence — particularly on the defensive end of the floor — they gain by handing DeAndre Jordan another major assignment in his NBA center apprenticeship. In 37 minutes, Jordan scores 23 points (9-for-11 shooting from the field; 17 of the 23 in the first half), grabs seven rebounds, records three blocks, and turns the ball over only once. His 13-point first quarter has a particularly nice sequence. I like the possession at the 4:30 mark, when Baron feeds him very early — not quite in transition, but just as the Grizzlies are getting set defensively in the halfcourt. Baron gets inside, then slings an artful pass to Jordan, who is running toward the rim. Jordan catches the pass without complication, but realizes he’s about to encounter both Randolph and Gasol. Rather than try to create a shot in traffic, he wisely returns the ball to Baron. DeAndre’s reward? About 10 seconds later, he gets a pass from Marcus Camby, who’s at the high post, who hits him underneath for a much easier layup. DeAndre also shows off a running hook, some fancy footwork, and much better anticipation for passes. He gets a little gassed on the defensive end, particularly in the second half.
Al Thornton is put on the spot when Craig Smith picks up his fourth foul at the 8:32 mark in the third quarter. With Kaman on the shelf and Camby done for the night, Thornton is now charged with the responsibility of guarding Zach Randolph down low. Memphis goes into Randolph repeatedly, and Zach beats up Thornton for a few possessions. But Thornton eventually stabilizes and does an admirable job given that Randolph is a colossal mismatch on the block. It has to be a satisfying moment for Al when he swats away Randolph’s driving layup attempt [3rd, 5:10]. Randolph had already tried to post Al up once earlier in the possession. Smith remains on the bench in the fourth quarter, whether it’s because Dunleavy is pleased with Thornton, or he wants more athleticism on the floor on the offensive end. It seems an odd decision.
After the Randolph exhibition, Memphis goes to Rudy Gay in isolation against Butler (then Ricky Davis). Gay manufactures 8 points on five consecutive Grizzlies possessions, including six free throw attempts. It’s here the Clips badly miss the weak side defense of Kaman and Camby, who both have an instinctive grasp of the Clippers’ rotations and coverages. It isn’t as if wings like Gay haven’t been beating the Clips’ perimeter defenders now and then, but when they do, the Clippers’ bigs have been quick on the help. Tonight, as the game wears on, both Memphis’ perimeter players and their big men begin to pound their way to the rim, control the glass by a healthy margin and get to the line at will.
The evacuation due to a busted water main marks a turning point in game, as the Clippers never find their rhythm after the half hour hiatus, but I sense that’s more coincidence than anything meaningful. The Clippers wear down inside against a talented team that converts more shots at the rim than any team in the League.
Baron Davis logs a season-high 27 points to go with 12 rebounds and 12 assists. His restoration is no longer a novelty. Clippers fans have never been treated to a player whose combination of charisma and skill assert this level of authority over a game. Elton Brand’s better games were often dominant, but you knew what he was going to do and you watched him apply those skills with proficiency. Baron’s performances are creative and operatic. I’d forgotten, and it’s fun to remember again and see them up close on a regular basis.