In some ways, last nights game at Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes had all the hallmarks of a “typical Clippers” loss – the blown double-digit lead, missed free-throws down the stretch, a last-second dagger drained by a semi-obscurity etc. In fact, the game was an encouraging one for Clipper fans. With the exception of a sluggish stretch in the third quarter where an offensively-challenged Clipper B-unit lost an 18 point lead, repeatedly settling for the outside jumper, the Clippers played energetic team basketball, with a consistent ball movement unseen in these parts (Clipperland not Mexico City) in years. There was an unusual intensity down the stretch for a pre-season game, stemming from some combination of 22,000 stomping fans (mostly pro-Spurs) and the fact that both coaches played their starters throughout a nip and tuck fourth quarter. Would it have been nice if the Clippers had held on? I guess – but most of us have been waiting all summer to watch this team on the court, and there was a lot to like. To wit:
- Blake Griffin is officially much more than merely healthy. Griffin was far and away the most dynamic player on the court tonight, beginning the first half with a rim-shaking jam off a Baron lob and ending it with a swished 3-pointer. He did all the things Clipper fans have eagerly anticipated – grabbing 17 rebounds in 37 minutes and playing strong on-ball defense – but also surprised me with his comfort in the offense. He passed crisply out of the post, dove to the rim for rebounds after setting screens, and displayed some passable ball-handing skills in the open court. He missed a few easy finishes at the rim, but created those easy opportunities with a varied array of spins and ducks in the paint. If there was a note of caution tonight with Griffin it’s that he apparently can’t stay away from the floor – he hit the ground hard at least four times tonight. Part of it is just his game. For lack of a better word, Griffin is springy – he seems to play half the game from about three feet in the air. But his teammates have to do a better job of protecting him – just because he can do something doesn’t mean he should. Eric Gordon threw Griffin an ill-advised alley-oop attempt in the fourth that reminded me of a quarterback throwing his receiver a high ball over the middle: it’s what’s going to happen after the catch is made that gets your guy killed.
- Baron Davis looked very good. His floor time was restricted to the first eight minutes of each half, but the brevity of his appearances only exaggerated how much better the Clipper offense ran when he was at the point. The question with Baron has always been more “Will he?” than “Can he?” but after coming into camp out of shape and sitting the first three games it was reassuring to see him looking pretty svelte and very athletic. On one play early in the third, Baron leaped across and over a ducking Chris Kaman to make a weak-side block. He was called for a foul on the play, but the ups were there.
- Also, the (extremely) early results on New Baron were positive. He made the only two shots he took (both 3-pointers) and was always looking to pass. His court vision can still take your breath away – Baron finished an open court run off a steal with a no-look drop back to Chris Kaman that was a thing of beauty. I watched that play about five times on the ol’ DVR – Baron’s eyes never leave the basket. It’s like he’s finding Kaman by smell or something.
- New acquisitions Foye and Gomes shot a combined 1 for 13 from the field, but their play left different impressions. All 6 shots Gomes took – including 3 corner threes – were open looks; we know he’ll drain those eventually. He also did all those other little things Clipper fans have been told to expect. He was active on the boards, and made a great head’s-up play at the end of the first half, hitting a streaking Blake Griffin at the opposite 3-point line with a pass from the baseline for a buzzer beating 3.
- Foye looked a little shakier, jacking up too many low percentage jump shots early in the shot clock. Of course, Randy Foye isn’t going to play 28 minutes in a regular season game unless something has gone horribly wrong.
- Process vs. Results. Gomes wasn’t the only player who had a disappointing shooting night from deep. Eric Gordon went 3 for 9 from long distance, but, like Gomes, he was missing open looks. Nothing drove Clipper fans crazier last year than watching the team clear out so that Al Thorton (or Travis Outlaw) could dribble down the shot clock before launching his patented I’ve-Seen-Kobe-Make-This-Shot 18-foot fade-away at the buzzer. There was none of that last night. With Kaman and Griffin on the court together, the Spurs were forced to sag off the perimeter, and the Clippers were whipping the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man. When that open man was Gordon, he was decisive – either putting up a 3 or taking the ball to the rim. He had 22 points last night and could have had 32 – a lot of nights he will.
- Eric Gordon’s struggles at the free throw line continue to be a mystery. He missed four last night – including both with the game on the line in the last minute – and he was way short on three of the four. On his misses he looks like a golfer with a case of the yips; there’s something a little herky-jerky in his release you don’t see in his in-game shots.
- The interior defense wasn’t good. There was a lack of communication between Kaman, Griffin, and Gomes. Too many times the Spurs found easy lay-ups after two Clipper defenders collapsed on the same cutter. Other times, Gomes would challenge a pass, expecting help behind him that simply wasn’t there. Kaman, in particular, looked unenthusiastic in the first quarter, barely moving his feet to try to stay in front of DeJuan Blair. Several defensive rebounds went completely unpursued. A lot of this was probably pre-season intensity level, exaggerated by a lack of familiarity between the players. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on.
- Spurs interim coach Manu Ginobli drew up the final play for San Antonio. I know this is supposed to be yet another example of Popovich’s genius, the way he builds and shares trust with his team – and it probably is – but it also felt a little like a thumb in the eye. Would Manu have been drawing up that play against the Lakers?
- I think DeAndre has finally found his shooting range: 3-3 on three slam dunks.
- Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu played a combined 7 unmemorable minutes.
- I missed Ralph and Mike. The two most discussed topic between the announcers were Matt Bonner’s passion for the sandwich and whether or not Baron Davis looks like he could have recently weighed 260 pounds (he doesn’t.) At a certain point, I put the game on mute and just let the Ralph and Mike in my head take over.
MIKE: Blake Griffin with ANOTHER jam. He looks like a young Shawn Kemp out there… BUT WITH A MORE REFINED GAME. Could we be looking at a PLAYOFF TEAM?!?
RALPH: Calm down Mike Smith.
They’ll be back on Thursday, as the Clippers take on the Nuggets back home at the Staples Center.