Things weren’t bad enough for Baron Davis before he sat down with a swollen knee. Without his doing anything, it all managed to get a lot worse.
But maybe that’s the challenge that he needs.
Let’s review and draw a quick thumbnail sketch of Baron’s tenure as a Clipper. Big signing, EB defection, preseason back injury and discomfort in Dunleavy relationship. Realization that he couldn’t turn it on and off, that the problems weren’t just Dunleavy and his system, re-dedication and focus in summer ’09. Blake Griffin injury, Eric Gordon misses six early games, debacle in Memphis coincident with Haiti earthquake, Clips fall short of reaching .500. Towel thrown in, departure of Dunleavy and Camby, futility, losses mount. Offseason spent getting away and being Baron: after all, how did all of the hard work the previous summer pay off, aside from more pain and frustration?
That gets us up to the present, and we pick up the thread with … uh-oh … might have started too late, knee swells, missing training camp and early preseason. But hey, ready to go for the opener. And what’s wrong now, Kaman missing shots, Gordon missing every 3, third-quarter futility, same old same old. Already looking like it’s going to be a long season after just three games. And the knee swells up again, with some kind of cyst in the back of it, whatever that means. Probably some scar tissue.
Eric Bledsoe got his first minutes in game three against Dallas, after Randy Foye tweaked his hamstring at practice on Saturday. The game was an exercise in ugly frustration for the Clippers, as they shot 34 percent and seemed aimless, their performance heading downhill after competing in the opener against Portland and then getting hit with a decisive road loss against Golden State. Things weren’t right for any of the key Clippers players, not for Gordon, Griffin, Kaman or Baron Davis.
And that was when the knee swelled up, for the second game of the home Texas back-to-back. Already without Foye and now without Davis, the Clippers looked to be outmatched. It would be trial by fire for Bledsoe, who had no idea he would be the starter when he showed up at the gym. Baron Davis had arrived and realized he couldn’t or shouldn’t go. What he had no idea about, however, is that Eric Bledsoe would be so good.
Bledsoe matched up respectably against Tony Parker. The Clippers didn’t fare any better than they had in their previous outings, but things did change. Eric Gordon was both aggressive and a playmaker, notching a career-high 11 assists. Kaman missed some easy opportunities and still shot over 50 percent, the team collectively shot 46 percent, and the Spurs’ stars actually played in the fourth quarter, which is progress for the Clippers against San Antonio. The Clippers hadn’t figured anything out yet, and there was no real reason to be more hopeful with Western Conference darlings Oklahoma City coming in to Staples Center on Wednesday, but the team was less pathetic, if that’s saying anything. It might even be safe to say that they played harder with Randy Foye and Baron Davis on the sidelines, along with a quick Craig Smith ejection.
When you look at the Clippers’ first five opponents and what the Clippers showed in those games, the victory over OKC makes perfect sense. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t unlikely. Portland, Dallas and San Antonio are all veteran, execution-based teams, one more solid and unforgiving than the next. GSW was a road game and no time for poor shooting and hesitation on defense, after a tough loss in the opener. OKC is young and athletic, more susceptible to ups and downs, even in a bit of a slump on an early-season road trip. As it turns out, they were there for the taking.
Which doesn’t mean that the Clippers weren’t capable of giving this game away. But Bledsoe and Gordon built on the solid foundation of their first time sharing the backcourt and put together a decisive effort on both ends that was a joy to behold. Without much help from Kaman — but getting nice production from the bench and gluey starter Ryan Gomes — the guards led the team to a highly enjoyable first victory. They played like a home team; they were competitive and focused.
But most noticeably, they were fast and quick. Bledsoe’s speed might have been obscured in his first start against Tony Parker’s quickness, but it was obvious against the athletic Westbrook and the looser Thunder. And the speed and energy on both ends was complemented beautifully by Gordon’s skill, strength and confidence. The chemistry was obvious, with the young rookie Bledsoe’s speed backed by the steady assertiveness of the “seasoned veteran” Gordon. Gordon thrived on being the experienced player and the focal point, guiding Bledsoe and Griffin in the matchup against his USA teammates Durant, Westbrook and Green (the last cut).
As Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith were saying about the Thunder, it’s easy to be a surprise. Bledsoe is a surprise, and Bledsoe and Gordon are new and shiny. Gordon’s boost in confidence should be a lasting one, and Bledsoe seems like a lot more of a player than the Mike Taylor flashes Clippers fans saw in recent years. But Bledsoe will hit some bad patches, many of them sooner rather than later. Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams and Chris Paul are coming up before he gets to go against Tony Parker again.
And what does Baron Davis make of this turn of events, not to mention Randy Foye? Two Clippers guards will return to a team that might be different from the listless, sloppy one that they played on before getting hurt. Worth noting that Foye had some complaints about coming back from offseason knee work, before he tweaked the hamstring. So his game might benefit from the rest and rehab time. And perhaps there’s a precedent for Davis, in the sequence in the 2008-09 season when the problem wasn’t just Dunleavy, when Davis was trying but wasn’t very good. He came to work at the beginning of last season ready to do his part, and his best — or some version of it. Right now he gets to watch, just like Blake Griffin did last year, and see how things go, thinking about what it might be like to insert himself in the game. He was already trying to use discretion in his shots, and he tried to play up on defense against the creaky Jason Kidd. Now it looks like he, along with Foye, might be absent from the Clippers’ road trip. It should be interesting for him, just as it is for us, to watch and wonder what the Clipper team might be like when it gets back.