There is a swirl of themes surrounding the Clippers right now, many of which come into focus in a big win over a very good team Monday night, albeit the Clips almost blow the game in spectacular fashion over the final couple of minutes.
It’s clear that the Clippers aren’t a horrible team. If this core group remains healthy though the final quarter of the season, they won’t embarrass themselves on a regular basis, and they’ll probably pick up some solid wins at home (As it is, the Clippers have won 12 of their past 16 games on their home floor). They still have a couple of wings who can stretch the floor, a center who — when he makes good decisions — can put a lot of pressure on the opponent’s interior defense, and a point guard who — when he’s not preoccupied with trying to shoot his team to success — does a good job of finding those scorers. They also now have a power forward with a versatile enough game to keep the defense off-balance. None of these five guys is a complete player at his position and the team defense won’t be top-shelf, but there’s a cohesive unit out there that can score — the Clippers have racked up an offensive rating of 107.7 or greater in four of their past five games. Add to that starting five one of the better backup point guards in the league, a couple of intriguing talents, and an efficient, othersized power forward in Craig Smith (who’s dinged up right now). That’s a solid nine-man rotation — one that can tilt big or small, depending on need.
With Gooden in place, we’re seeing a half court offense that features rotating pick and rolls on both sides of the floor. This requires more of some players than they have been accustomed to contributing, especially Eric Gordon. Because he’s the ball man on more ball screens, Gordon is being asked to do more as a playmaker. He’s struggled with his handle this season, but tonight he looks a lot better, particularly in the second half.
My favorite offensive possession of the game comes at about the 4:25 mark of the fourth quarter. The Clippers demonstrate both patience and execution. It’s the kind of set that good offensive teams run on a regular basis:
Gooden and Chris Kaman offer Baron Davis an early stagger screen along the arc. Baron moves from right to left, but Deron Williams fights through the screens and Wesley Matthews is also waiting for Baron as he tries to turn the corner. Baron backs out as the Clippers reset. This time, Gordon curls around a back screen from Kaman, catches the pass from Baron in motion. As the Utah defense collapses on Eric, he dishes the ball in traffic out to an open Kaman, who drains the jumper from about 18 feet.
Eric Gordon has a massive fourth quarter, scoring 13 points. He goes 4-for-6 from the floor, 2-for-2 from the stripe, and hits all three attempts from beyond the arc. On the first two (4th, 10:54; 4th, 9:52), C.J. Miles drifts too far from the arc. On the final one (4th, 6:28), nobody picks up EJ in transition on a break initiated by a ridiculous swat of a Williams’ attempted layup by DeAndre Jodran, who swoops in from the weak side.
That 3-pointer by Gordon should be the dagger, as the Clippers go up 95-78 with just over six minutes to go in the game. The Clippers still lead by 12 with 2:29 remaining. The Clippers move themselves and the ball fairly well on the next two possessions (4th, 2:15; 4th, 1:50), but come away with only an off-balanced, fadeaway elbow jumper from Davis and a contested 25-foot Rasual Butler jumper from beyond the arc. Neither shot goes in. When the Clippers walk the ball up with a minute and a half remaining, their lead has been trimmed to five.
After that, the offense screeches to a halt:
- (4th, 1:30) Davis milks some clock, then gets a high screen from Kaman with :08 remaining on the shot clock. Everyone in the building knows that’s the call, including Williams and Carlos Boozer. Williams walls off the lane as Baron tries to penetrate, and ultimately strips Baron of the ball.
- (4th, 1:02) This time, the screen from Kaman doesn’t come until the :05 mark on the shot clock, but he pastes Williams (you argue it’s a moving screen as Chris seems to give Williams a little bit of a shove. Williams jaws about it with the official after he converts a layup on the other end + one.). Either way, it gets Baron the space he wants, as he drives to the foul line, pulls up and drains the jumper.
- (4th, 0:38) Yep. Again. Boozer practically leaves before Kaman does. As Davis dribbles left, he loses the ball. The only consolation is that he’s able to catch Williams in transition and foul before the Utah point guard can convert the layup. Williams misses both free throw attempts, a pair that would’ve tied the game.
During the Utah rally, the Clips give up a big bucket in transition to Andrei Kirilenko (4th, 1:05), but the other points are surrendered courtesy of slow reactions. Boozer beats Gooden off the dribble + one (4th, 2:01) to cut the Clippers lead to seven. On the next Jazz possession, Kaman loses track of Millsap, as the Utah power forward drifts out to about 17 feet along the baseline, where he catches a pass and buries an open jumper to cut the lead to five (4th, 1:31). Off the Davis made jumper, Deron Williams knives through the Clippers defense in about three seconds, drawing a foul on Kaman in the process (4th, 0:40). When Williams hits the free throw, the Jazz trail by only two. For about 40+ minutes, the Clippers play solid defense. They’re particularly sticky on the perimeter, and consistently effective against the pick-and-roll. If not for the pair of Williams’ misses, one of the more complete efforts of the season could’ve been squandered.
DeAndre Jordan’s line doesn’t look like much, but he plays one of his better games under the Hughes regime. The four blocks electrify the crowd, but it’s the humdrum part of the gig that impresses most. His screen/roll defense is decisive and, as the blocks suggest, he’s a help side menace against Utah’s inside attack.
As D.J. Foster noted last night, everyone on the Clippers’ roster has legitimate deficiencies and the Clippers can’t afford for each of them to surface on the same night if they want to win basketball games. But so long as some of the team’s worst habits are sublimated, the product on the floor might be good enough to steal some games and, as the very least, entertain.