There were a lot of exciting firsts Wednesday night — too many to do justice to, really. Between all the buzz about the new uniforms, the revised logo, the upgraded plasma screens at the Staples Center, a revised slogan (Rise!) and some rookie going for 20 and 14, the new coaching regime was largely overlooked. So, in an effort to remedy that, a few quick observations about the Clippers’ plays and game plan Wednesday night, along with some possibly wild extrapolations that may or may not turn out to mean anything as the season progresses. Without further ado…
The Clippers’ first half-court set of the night, less than a minute into the game:
Play: Baron Davis brings the ball up-court. The Clippers spread the floor, with Chris Kaman in the high post, and shooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Gomes on either corner. Blake Griffin sets a high screen, which Baron uses to drive straight at the rim. He’s fouled on the layup attempt and makes a free throw.
Probably eighty percent of the Clippers’ first half possessions looked something like this, with the Clippers sending their shooters wide before running the high pick and roll with Griffin and the PG. It’s basic, but effective — especially with penetrating ball handlers — forcing the defense to choose between collapsing on the pick-and-roll and leaving the shooters open on the perimeter.
This is obviously a nascent version of the offense — both Dean Domopoulos and Del Negro referred to it as “basic” — but it was working well in the first half, consistently earning the Clippers open looks (that they often failed to knock down, but… you know). Sending the two shooters to opposite corners created maximal space in the paint, rewarding aggressive point guard play. In a related story, the Clippers guards attacked the rim continuously and effectively all night, with Eric Gordon in particular driving any time he sensed his defender was sagging off him a half step too far. Much will be made of Gordon’s new “Post-FIBA” mindset, but all the room didn’t hurt either.
After years of Mike Dunleavy’s bottomless playbook, watching the team run the same basic play over and over again was a little disorienting. It’s hard not to compare the implicit psychologies. Dunleavy was seen as a micro-manager; fans and players alike complained about the restraints of his play calling. On Friday night, the Clippers played an offense that depends on versatile talents and decision making — in other words, a system that trusts the players to recognize opportunities. The guard can drive, drive and kick, drop the ball off to a rolling Griffin, or feed the ball inside to Kaman in the post. Of course, the shooters need to be sharp enough to punish sagging and double teams, and Wednesday they weren’t. The starting five was particularly cold from outside, missing every 3-point attempt it took… for the entire game. And, like I said before, this is the rudimentary version. Ryan Gomes, in particular, seems to lack full integration into the offense. Basically, he spent the entire night in the corner waiting for the ball — if he made a cut to get open all night I must have missed it.
The Clippers did run variations — Rasual Butler, in particular, ran the baseline well and curled off screens to shake his man — but mostly the alternative was to get the ball to Kaman and clear out, definitely the part of Wednesday’s offense that felt most familiar. Kaman’s inability to make shots masks how easily he was getting good looks.
The third quarter looked pretty much like the first, but with more movement. Kaman and Griffin moved more in the paint, each trying to use the other’s movement to scrape off his own defender. Interestingly, when the offense started to become stagnant early in the third, Vinny called a play where Baron fed the ball to Griffin, who was on the baseline fourteen feet from the basket. Griffin caught the ball, face to the basket, made a nice looking spin move and failed to finish. This wasn’t the only time Vinny used Griffin out on the wing — almost like a Chris Webber, who could make a move to the basket, pull up, or thread a pass to an inside cutter. The ability Griffin has to get to the rim is impressive, but he had trouble finishing and looked like he lacked full confidence in his own moves. I don’t think most Clipper fans were expecting Del Negro to feature Griffin as a play-maker right off the bat. It will be interesting to see if Blake can make enough jump shots and finish enough moves to justify those extra touches. Certainly, he showed an ability as a pin-point passer that impressed the crowd at Staples Center nearly as much as his dunks.
Much was made of the Clippers’ “inability” to beat the 2-3 zone Portland threw at them in the fourth quarter — I said as much in my recap — but watching the game again, it really looked more like a simple inability to finish. This wasn’t that college thing, with he guards throwing the ball endlessly, and with increasing panic, around the perimeter. This was the Clippers getting the shots they wanted and Chris Kaman missing shots he made eighty percent of the time last year. Yes, the zone took away their penetration — but that was only deadly because the Clippers were so cold from the field. For example: coming out of a time out midway through the fourth, the Clippers but Blake in the high post, and Kaman in the low post. Gomes started the play underneath the basket, then cut out to the corner, drawing his defender. As Baron fed the ball in to Kaman, Eric Gordon dropped back behind the three-point line just enough to keep Brandon Roy from double-teaming Kaman. Kaman made a move and missed an open 8-footer. Later, Baron does attack the spaces on the perimeter, driving and making a nice pass to Kaman, who doesn’t make a strong move to the basket and has his shot blocked.
The Clippers defensive intensity could be attributed to a lot of things: opening night, Blake’s return, a national audience. Whatever. Watching the game again on tape, I was impressed with the consistency of the defensive effort. The Clippers played a tight man all night, with Baron Davis occasionally drifting away from the long-range challenged Andre Miller and playing free safety. Stymied on penetration attempts, the Blazers were forced to settle for long range jumpers late in the shot clock, which is, as they say, all you can do. Brandon Roy hit a buzzer beater to end each of the first two quarters, LaMarcus Aldridge put the game on ice with a shot-clock beating three. It happens. But the effort was there all night, and paid dividends in the transition game Clipper fans have often called for. The “core” in particular — Kaman, Davis, Gordon, and Griffin — were very disruptive, jumping passing lanes and swatting away lazy dribbles with active hands. Each starter had at least one steal that ignited a fast break, although Kaman would be wise not to try to run it himself in the future.
Anyway. It’s only been one game, and it’s a near guarantee that we won’t learn anything substantive against the aberrational Warriors. Still, the hints of how Vinny wants this team to play were there Wednesday night. It will be interesting to see how closely the early returns anticipate how the team plays once everyone is comfortable with each other and in the system.