New season, high hopes, disappointing result. The Clippers opened the 2010-11 campaign with a 98-88 loss to the Trailblazers Wednesday night at the Staples Center. The game was back and forth through three and a half quarters, until the Blazers put the Clips away with a 15-0 run midway through the fourth. Despite a failure to find a consistent offensive option tonight, the Clippers stayed competitive with high energy defense and an aggressive — if sometimes discombobulated — offensive attack. For the crowd at Staples Center, however, tonight was primarily about Blake Griffin’s delayed debut. After waiting almost a year and a half since Griffin was drafted to see him play his first regular season minutes, Clipper fans were treated to a performance well worth the wait.
1. Throw home monstrous jams on the offensive glass. Go for a double double in the first ten minutes of floor time. Check.
2. Look like you’re not having your best day on the boards. Fail to consistently block out on the defensive glass. Allow physically inferior opponents to tip away a few rebounds; knock another two out of bounds. Still manage to casually grab fourteen rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. Check.
3. Lead two fast breaks, finishing the first with a perfect one-handed pass to a streaking Eric Gordon. Check.
4. Surprise home crowd with touch and poise, banking home shots off spin moves in the post, handling the ball like a guard, and leading the starters with four assists. Check.
5. Do not suffer freak, and yet totally anticipated, season-ending, Nation-crushing knee injury. Check.
In short, he put on a show. If you went into the season thinking Blake Griffin was the favorite to be this season’s Rookie of the Year, nothing in this game would change your mind. He did all the things we’ve been told to expect — the above the rim put-back jams, the rebounds, the athletic on-ball defense — but he also continued to do a lot of things we’ve been told not to expect. Tune in to Friday night’s game against the Warriors — Griffin could have twenty rebounds by the half.
- Vinny Del Negro admitted in his post-game press conference that DeAndre should have played more. I thought that was kind of interesting — I haven’t heard a lot of coaches admitting tactical mistakes immediately after a game. Vinny was right, DeAndre should have played more. I can’t remember another Clipper I’ve gone back and forth on more times. Tonight, DeAndre was the Clips’ best big off the bench, blocking three shots, rising for a jam, hitting two (consecutive!) free throws, and playing pretty ferocious on-ball defense against LaMarcus Aldridge. Jarron Collins was effective, DeAndre was notable.
- For Clipper fans who have long agitated for an up-tempo offense, their prayers appear to have been answered. When the Clippers weren’t running they were slashing, and when they weren’t slashing… well, frankly, when they weren’t running or slashing they weren’t doing much, which is in large part why they lost the game. But the running and slashing was good! For all the trouble Baron had in the half court offense, he still excels in the open court, and Griffin, Butler, Gordon, Gomes, and DeAndre can all fill the lane nicely. Expect to see a lot more of the same Friday in Oakland.
- Chris Kaman was brutal, especially down the stretch. The game was decided during a fourth quarter stretch that saw the Clippers go scoreless on six straight possessions against a 2-3 zone. In order:
1. Gomes blocked going hard to the basket
2. Kaman misses a baseline jumper.
3. Kaman spins to the basket, misses the finish.
4. Kaman misses a 10 foot face up.
5. Kaman’s shot blocked in the lane.
6. Gordon gets blocked instead of throwing the ball up to a trailing Blake Griffin.
Kaman had a stellar pre-season and he seems as focused and as conditioned as he’s ever been going into a season, but tonight he couldn’t hit the ocean. He was 4-18 for the game, making only a single field goal in the second half. Usually if Kaman’s range starts off it stays off, but with the game in the balance the ball went inside to Kaman possession after possession – hard to say if it’s a sign of Vinny’s confidence in Kaman or his lack of familiarity with his streakiness. It’s hard to imagine Kaman shooting this poorly very often, but it does raise the issue of how the Clipper offense will work down the stretch this year. On days when Kaman’s shot isn’t dropping it isn’t totally clear who on the Clippers can consistently get the shot he wants with the game on the line.
- Ryan Gomes has a very cool Mohawk and everyone seems to agree he’s one of the better guys in the NBA, but I hope eventually he starts making jump shots. He’s been bad so far – flat out terrible, actually. He was bad in the pre-season and he was bad tonight, shooting just 1-6 from the field and missing all three long range attempts. His defense was good – he did the best job of any Clipper with Brandon Roy – but no one is going to notice Gomes’ peripherals if he can’t find the bottom of the net.
- If the Clippers want to be better than merely interesting this year, Baron Davis is going to have to play better than “inconsistent with flashes of brilliance.” The effort was there. Baron was intense on the defensive end, jumping the passing lanes, and using his bulk to keep Andre Miller on the perimeter. On the offensive end, however, there were more than a few flashes of “Bad Baron.” Several times, Baron drove to the rim and turned the ball over trying to pass rather than attempting to draw a foul from a collapsing defense. He blew one fast break by rushing an alley-oop attempt to Griffin that caromed wildly off the glass. And of course the three bombs-away heaves from beyond the arc. Not all missed threes are created equal. You can live with Ryan Gomes’ misses – open looks that evidence suggests he will eventually start making. Baron continues to shoot three or four shots a game that will simply never be effective for a career 32 percent 3-point shooter. Plus – maybe because his shots so often come while the offense is setting up – but his misses seem to lead to fast breaks the other way at an alarming clip.
- Chemistry, cohesiveness, flow — call it whatever you want, this team doesn’t always look very comfortable. At times tonight, the offense suffered from a lack of weapons, particularly whenever Kaman and Gordon were on the bench. The Clippers played the beginning of the fourth quarter with a line-up of Gordon, Foye, Butler, Collins (later Kaman) and Gomes. The Clippers basically ignored the kick-out all night, and the Blazers were (correctly) zoning in on Gordon, trapping him in the corner as soon as he caught the ball. It was a pivotal stretch of the game, with the Clippers attempting to simultaneously sustain the run on which they ended the third and give the starters a little more rest before the stretch run. Throughout the game, the Clippers seemed to get fixated on one offensive option at a time. In the first quarter it was Griffin, in the second it was Kaman, the third Gordon, and then Kaman down the stretch again. When Vinny finally gets the offense fully installed, I’m hoping the offense feels a little more integrated.
- Defensive rebounding. It was a problem in the pre-season, it was a problem tonight, and frankly, the less that’s said about it the better because it’s probably going to be a problem all season. Besides Griffin and Kaman, who is rebounding on this team? Baron, Foye, Gordon, Butler, Rhino… all essentially non-factors on the boards. And strangely, none of them seem to even make much of an effort. The Blazers consistently had three or four rebounders surrounding Kaman, several times hounding him out of the ball even after it looked like he had secured it. There’s not much in basketball more dispiriting than forcing a bad shot with twenty seconds of perfect defense and then having to do it all over again. To their credit, the Clippers continued to play tough defense throughout the Blazer’s second chance possessions, but the inability to control the defensive boards crippled momentum throughout the game.
Whew. It is late. All in all, opening night was a mixed bag. The Clippers are a flawed team and tonight gave fans a pretty good idea of what this season’s frustrations will be: inconsistent offense, thin bench, poor defensive rebounding. On the other hand, the buzz around me as I was leaving the Staples Center tonight was positive. The Clippers basically got nothing from their point guard, small forward, and center positions and still almost won the game. That’s promising (unless it’s ominous… I’m not sure). For one night at least, Eric Gordon looked like an All-Star. Blake Griffin looked like more.
Tune in Friday when the team travels to Oakland and Blake Griffin attempts to go 40 and 30 against David Lee and the Warriors.