After blowing an 18 point lead against San Antonio in Mexico City, the Clippers tried to make up an 18 point deficit tonight against the Denver Nuggets in their preseason home opener. That they fell short in both games is neither a good sign for the regular season nor a reason to panic quite yet. Ginobli sat out the second half of the Spurs game on Tuesday and Chauncey Billups took the game off tonight, while the Clippers were missing Craig Smith and DeAndre Jordan from their regular rotation. Once again, there were some positives and negatives to take from a spirited preseason contest.
First let’s look at the positives. Both teams opened the game in a good rhythm, with Eric Gordon showing his new assertiveness and pacing the Clippers’s offense early. With Arron Affalo playing tight against Gordon to guard against the 3, Baron skipped a bounce pass to EJ, which allowed him to quickly blew by Affalo for a layup and 1. EJ’s dead-eye accuracy from long range, combined with his speed and strength in the lane gave the Denver’s guards fits in the first quarter. Kaman is also in mid-season form, hitting his mid-range jumpers on simple screen and rolls and muscling his way into the lane for hook shots over Nene. While many fans predicted that Kaman’s numbers will drop off from his breakout season last year–when he was the focus of a plodding half court offense–Kaman’s consistent mid range jumpers tonight is testimony to his work during the off season, such that he might now be the team’s best mid range shooter. Somewhere Dunleavy and Kim Hughes must be smiling at Kaman’s growing confidence and serenity after seven long and sometimes frustrating years.
Baron orchestrated the Clippers offense in the first quarter beautifully, he didn’t force the issue, and he played within himself, setting up Kaman, EJ, and Blake for open looks and dunks. When Baron plays this way, when he refrains from taking quick shots or overhandling the ball, he is clearly the team’s best point guard and possibly its true floor leader. Meanwhile, the franchise’s future leader, Blake Griffin, was everywhere on the floor. He was a human pogo stick on rebounds, his athleticism and foot speed undiminished. Even when he snatches a mere defensive rebound out of the air, there is something electric about it, as if he were asserting his considerable will upon the game and scattering lesser mortals beneath his wake. Blake scored 10 points on two shots and grabbed 4 rebounds in the first quarter. He would finish with 24 points, 14 rebounds, 4 block shots, and he stepped in to take 3 charges and got an elbow to the face for his trouble.
There was also a sequence near the end of the first quarter that was quite interesting. Blake found himself guarding Carmelo out on the perimeter. Carmelo jabbed step and having put Blake back on his heels, pulled back to hit a 20 foot jumper in his face. Blake ran down the floor with Carmelo guarding him, asking for the ball, wanting to take it right back at Carmelo. Unfortunately the Clippers never got him the ball and the quarter ran out, but you caught a glimpse there of his desire and competitiveness. Quite possibly, he lacks the offensive skills to go directly one on one against Carmelo right now, but his competitive fire burns brightly, and that is a good sign for the Clippers franchise. The quarter would end in a 32-32 tie. Then the Clippers did something scary.
Del Negro opened the second quarter with Foye, Aminu, Rasual, Bryan Cook, and Ryan Gomes on the floor. Essentially four new acquisitions plus Rasual. First possession of the second quarter, Rasual pulled up for a quick 3 and hit it. It was a bad shot, but it went in. Next possession, Foye brought the ball to the front court, passed it once to Cook, who promptly hoisted up a 3 which clanged off the rim. Next possession Rasual tried another 3 but missed badly. Then Aminu got into the act and took a mystifying three of his own. When the ball touched Cook’s hands on the following possession he promptly hoisted up another three. The Clippers hoisted up five 3 pointers in a row. Their offense consisted of bringing the ball to the front court, and the first guy who touched the ball shoots a three. It got worse, Cook went for a Carmelo head fake and jumped on top of him for an easy foul. Then Aminu picked up his dribble near the free throw line and panicking, stepped back for an awkward jumper that missed badly. For the heck of it, Rasual tried another three and missed. The Clippers have now missed 9 shots in a row, 7 of which were three pointers. It was rather amazing that Del Negro didn’t call a timeout or made massive substitutions after 5 straight 3 pointers early in the shot clock. Perhaps he was as mystified as the rest of us. Or maybe he was practicing the Phil Jackson Zen meditative coaching style where he wants his players to figure things out on their own.
The Clippers were fortunate that Denver did not take advantage of their poor play early in the second quarter. Bledsoe replaced Foye, Gordon came in for Aminu, and Kaman came in to replace the shockingly inept Cook. Slowly, the Clippers worked their way back to keep the game close. The rookie Bledsoe was actually quite effective in the second quarter playing with the starters. Both Gordon and Kaman continued their hot shooting and the two combined to shoot 13-26 for the half, while the rest of their teammates shot 5-21. And as impressive as Blake Griffin’s energy, speed, and power was, the Nuggets’ Shelden Williams played off him considerably, daring him to shoot. At the 3:35 mark, Blake complied and shot an air ball from the top of the key. On the day that Blake develops a mid range jumper, ala Karl Malone, he will be almost unstoppable. The Clippers would go into half time trailing 57-55.
The third quarter began and the game grinded down into constant fouls and 3 seconds violations. Perhaps the end for the Clippers came when Baron picked up 4 fouls in the first 4 minutes of the third quarter. The Nuggets came out more focused after half time, just like the Spurs did on Tuesday night. By the time a frustrated Baron came out of the game with 5 fouls, the 2 point half time deficit had ballooned to 11. Then Foye came in and did no better, actually, the Clippers offense looked even worse with him playing alongside the starters. While Denver’s interior passing and ball movement was crisp, the Clippers bogged down in ISOs. With the offense stagnating and guys standing out of position, Eric started forcing his way to the basket and sometimes got trapped along the baseline. Denver’s bigs continue to leave Blake wide open and he is gun-shy. Blake passes up an open 15 footer and it costs the Clippers a 3 second violation when Kaman stayed in the lane too long, poised for a rebound. Foye missed three shots in a row at one point and made a terrible pass along the baseline for a costly turnover, which turned into a clear path foul against Eric.
But with the Clippers down by 18, an interesting thing began to happen. It started simply enough. Blake climbed the ladder and grabbed a strong rebound. Then he took a hard charge from Carmelo on the next possession. And with his teammates struggling to score, and with his limited offensive game, Blake tried to score the only way he knew how. He exploded to the basket past a bewildered Anthony and got a hard foul trying to dunk. He earned 2 free throws and it seems to calm the Clippers down a bit. Foye made a turnaround jumper in the lane, then slipped a high pass to Blake for another rim rattling jam. Blake grabbed another rebound and made a beautiful spin move toward the basket to cut Denver’s lead back down to 9.
Del Negro pleaded with his team to play with urgency to start the Fourth Quarter. Baron comes in with his five fouls to replace a partially redeemed Randy Foye. With Blake out and Cook in to start the 4th, Denver grabbed 3 offensive rebounds in a row, forcing Del Negro to reinsert Blake at the 11:08 mark. Baron wasted no time in finding Blake for an alley-oop on the next possession. Then Blake took another charge and an elbow straight to his chin. He rubs his chin then runs down the floor to throw down another monster dunk to cut the lead back down to 7. In one minute of game time, the energy that Blake brought has electrified the arena. Baron is hyped up now, he blocks a Denver shot from behind and scampers across the lane for a layup at the other end for his first field goal of the game. Blake takes another charge from Shelden Williams with his astounding foot speed and willingness to lay it all on the floor. With EJ and Kaman cooling off, Baron and Blake begins to take charge. Baron blocks the smaller Lawson and posted him up at the other end for a bucket and one to tie the game up at 91.
Aaron Affalo is hot tonight for Denver and he continues to hit tough jumpers, putting Denver back up by two. With 2:26 left in the game, the Clippers ran perhaps their most satisfying play of the night. Baron brought the ball down the floor and motioned to Kaman for a pick. Baron cut to the hoop as if going for a layup but instead floated it up softly to Blake, who ran his man into Kaman’s screen, grabbed the ball and slammed it home. It was a beautiful play, executed perfectly by three of the Clippers’ four best players. But Denver’s following possession shows the gap between the two teams. Carmelo Anthony struggled from the field tonight, but with 2 minutes to go in the game, he bulled his way to the basket and with Kaman challenging him, Carmelo missed 2 layups at the rim, but he stayed with it, kept on grabbing his own miss, 3 offensive rebounds in a row, until he got fouled. It was pure tenacity. And as many flaws as Carmelo have, as many deficiencies that people might spot in his game, he is still, without a doubt, one of the premiere players of his generation. On a bad shooting night, he still ended up with 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 9 assists. He would make both free throws for a 96-93 Denver lead. And as well as Blake shot free throws tonight–he was 10 for 10 until his last two–he would miss the two biggest free throws at the end of the game with the MVP chants echoing throughout the Staples Center. Carmelo is already a star that Blake has yet to become.
With 11 seconds left in the game, and the Clippers down by 3, Del Negro’s much maligned X and O’s deficiency was carefully scrutinized by Clippers fans. The play was actually a good one, simple and straightforward. Eric inbounded the ball then darted back in to receive the pass from Blake, who set a pretty effective screen for a long three that missed. It was the right guy shooting the ball, and the play got him open, so you can’t ask for anything more at the end of the game. But the Clippers fell just short once again in a preseason game that might be meaningless but might also be a harbinger of things to come. But as scary as the bench was, and as disappointing as the new players looked at times, the core of the team, and the crackling intensity of Blake Griffin seem to be genuine. We can only hope that the spark that Blake brought to the arena tonight will ignite into a raging firestorm in the months ahead. And then we’ll really have something.