I’m glad that’s over.
Pre-season came to a merciful close tonight with a 96-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings. The Clippers came out hot, built a double digit lead, squandered it, fell behind, tied the game with under 30 seconds to go on a loooong 3-pointer by rookie Al-Farouq Aminu, and were beaten in the final seconds on a Tyreke Evans heart breaker. Except, of course, it wasn’t a heart breaker. It’s pre-season. I’ve already forgotten who won.
Seriously though, the game as a game – a contest between two teams to score more points – was beside the point, a fact Vinny Del Negro clearly conceded in his personnel choices. Blake Griffin sat out, nursing a sprained ankle, although he insisted that he would have played if it had been the regular season. The closer the game became the fewer crunch time players were on the floor. Eric Gordon didn’t play in the second half. Baron Davis didn’t play in the fourth quarter, and Chris Kaman fouled out. By the time the Kings squeaked it out, they were beating a game-end Clipper lineup of Aminu, Bledsoe, Foye, Cook and either Craig Smith or Jarron Collins. [I idiotically erased the game before writing the recap.] Not exactly the usual faces we’ll be seeing down the stretch this year… unless of course, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Al-Farouq Aminu played his most complete game to date. There was close to a message board consensus heading into the preseason that the draft picks, while talented, were unlikely to make significant contributions this season. The jury is still out on Eric Bledsoe, but tonight was a blueprint for how Aminu can be successful this season. He grabbed nine rebounds. He was out in front on fast breaks, showing surprising body control on a couple of sweet finishes — he reminds me of Stacey Augmon, both in the wiry frame, and the way he fills the lane. He played pesky and effective on-ball defense. He made his free throws at a decent clip.
His shot is inconsistent, but far from the awkward mess draft experts warned of. Mike Smith – granted, not the harshest critic – gushed about his smooth stroke and perfect ball rotations over a slow motion replay of one of his jumpers. Aminu is indecisive – even on his first three pointer he was looking to pass first — and he commits at least one head-scratching turn over a game, but that’s kind of what we expected. What we didn’t expect was how quickly the positive things he does on the floor would outweigh his gaffes.
The Baron renaissance continues. Baron had 8 assists… and with a more sure-handed surrounding cast he could have had twice that. When he’s feeling it, Baron throws some of the most creative passes this side of Steve Nash. On one break he ended up in the air under the basket, turned 180 degrees, and shoveled a scoop pass under a defender’s flailing arm to a trailing Aminu. I don’t think there are three other guys in the league who make that pass.
It wasn’t only the passing. When he was guarded by the smaller Beno Udrich, Baron took advantage of his strength, posting him up and backing him down. When the defense sagged off him Baron, he nailed a few jumpers, and when the newly respectful D played too close, Baron went to the hole. He hit the boards hard. He brought the ball up the floor on the run, barking directions to the offense. Basically he played exactly the kind of game Clipper fans are convinced he needs to play for the team to win. That’s another frustration of the pre-season. Perfect Baron performances are rare – you hate to waste them.
Chris Kaman looks ready for the season. Like Baron, he seemed like he was airing out the repertoire tonight – alternating face-up jumpers from the elbow with that fade-away over the right shoulder he loves to shoot down low. Last year, Kaman proved he has as many post moves as any center in the league. Well, he has new moves. At one point he beat his defender off the dribble, going hard to his left from the top of the key and finishing with a reverse back handed layup. The mystery of what happens to Chris Kaman in the halftime locker room is still unsolved. Compared with some of his efforts last week, he actually played a pretty good second half, but he always seems out of rhythm coming out of the break. Something to watch for.
A few odds and ends:
- There continues to be no reason to believe that DeAndre Jordan can be a consistent piece of a rotation. He picked up his third foul in his third minute. He fumbled easy passes into the stands and bricked both his free throws. Is it mental? Is he cursed with small hands? Hopefully, Vinny Del Negro can crack the code, but I’m dubious.
- Eric Gordon came out hot in the first quarter, scored seven quick points, had a couple of heads-up assists and then didn’t play again. Ralph and Mike Smith thought he might have tweaked something before the half, but it seems equally probably that Del Negro simply thought 16 minutes was all the work he needed.
- The kind of sweeping changes the Clippers have undergone in the past year can be overwhelming. I’m glad Haggle/No Haggle is back. It’s a port in a storm.
- If there was an advanced metric that measured how likely a player was to knock the ball out of bounds in a loose ball situation, and if, further, this “ball-knockingness” was then shown to be a valuable attribute, Brian Cook would be a bargain.
- The Kings: Can you have that many ugly jump shots on one team and be good?
- It’s possible that watching Blake Griffin has spoiled me a little, but I thought DeMarcus Cousins looked very ordinary. He plays more below the rim than I expected, more hulking than quick, surprisingly inactive on the boards. In other totally subjective news, he has one of the least inspiring collection of outraged facial expressions since Antoine Walker.
- Hard to get a read on Randy Foye. He continues to struggle with his shot, particularly from behind the arc, and his +/- was the worst on the team again. On the other hand, he wasn’t playing under optimal point guard conditions – leading a unit for much of the fourth quarter consisting of Aminu, Jordan, Smith, and Cook. Throughout the pre-season Baron’s limited minutes meant Foye was consistently fronting mismatched units that will probably never see the floor in the regular season. He showed flashes tonight – hitting two nifty slide step jumpers on consecutive possessions in the second and stabilizing the team down the stretch – but it will be hard to really assess his game until we see him play in more realistic line-ups.