Frustrating game. The Clippers were their own worst enemy, wasting energetic efforts to stay in the game with a series of mental mistakes and missed free throws. This was a winnable game. The Nuggets were missing their entire starting front court, and didn’t seem to really show up until the second half, but in the end the missed free throws and another horrible night from Chris Kaman were too much to overcome.
- Eric Bledsoe was excellent again. I expected Chauncy Billups’ size to give Bledsoe trouble, but Bledsoe more than made up for it with his speed, dishing out 12 assists to go along with 13 points. I don’t know what’s crazier – that Bledsoe has started his career with three superb performances against Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, and Billups, or that he was the only player on the floor who seemed to want to shoot in the middle of the fourth quarter … which he proceeded to do successfully on consecutive possessions. I don’t know anything about Baron’s knee — I’ll take Ralph’s word that Baron has really been hurt the whole season — but even when he’s healthy Baron doesn’t push the tempo like Bledsoe, who drove the ball consistently down the center of the court, making quick feeds to open shooters before the defense could set up. He’s got a little moxie too. In the second half, Bledsoe stripped the ball, tiptoed down the side line, drove towards the basket, dropped a no look pass right into Eric Gordon’s hands and continued to run on without looking back at the finish, his arms raised like a magician celebrating an amazing trick. Abracadabra! It was kind of funny actually.
- It’s been a slow start for Craig Smith, who missed several early games with a tweaked back, and then most of his second game back after he was ejected for a flagrant foul. Tonight was the first night of year — and there will be about twenty — when Smith seems like one of the great bargains in the NBA. When the offense was at its most stagnant towards the end of the third quarter, Smith was the only Clipper capable of creating his own shot, going 8-9 from the field. With Kaman struggling, Del Negro played Griffin and Smith down the stretch, by far the Clippers most effective front court combo tonight. Once Kaman regains his touch – and he will – Smith provides a nice scoring option coming off the bench in the front court.
- Blake Griffin is pretty good. Griffin bested his opening night 24 with 26 points tonight, to go along with 10 rebounds, and played his most complete game of the season. He was a monster on the offensive glass, bigger and stronger than anyone else on the court, punishing a Nuggets make-shift front-court of Sheldon Williams and the always employed Melvin Ely. Not only did he score 26 points, he did it without any of his usual top-10 countdown NBA Jams style throwdowns. Griffin’s offensive game contrasts interestingly right now with Chris Kaman’s. Kaman knows a thousand moves and can’t seem to execute any of them, while Griffin has a relatively limited arsenal, but seems focused on a handful of moves he wants to perfect: the turn around drop step off the glass from the low block, the Tim Duncan face up from the elbow 15 feet out, a back to the basket spin move from the right side. Tonight he converted all of them. Griffin still has a slight hesitation taking the open mid range jumper, but it’s only slight. What’s important is that he takes them. If Griffin can find a couple of places on the floor where his jump shot becomes automatic he’s going to be almost impossible to defend.
- It’s hard not to feel for Chris Kaman. When you can hear the heckling on the broadcast, you know the players can hear it at the arena. But honestly, as bad as Kaman’s season has been, tonight was his worst game yet. It’s not just that he’s missing lay-ups — and he did, at least another 4 tonight — it’s the way he’s missing them, pump-faking, hesitating, nothing looks smooth. He’s thinking about it, shaking his head and barking at himself under his breath after misses. He’s not exactly making up for it on defense either. He was caught under the basket several times tonight, barely contesting the drives, sometimes settling for a lazy ball-slap foul. Watching Kaman tonight was giving me the kind of agita Little League parents suffer when the ball is hit out to their little right fielder. You hope he’s gonna come through, but it seems like it would take a lot of look.
- It’s not really fair to put Eric Gordon in the “bad” category, but that’s kind of the limitations of a binary system I guess. In many respects, it was another promising game from Gordon 2.0. His cold shooting from behind the arc continued, but he showed off his new pull up mid-range jumper a couple times, and he continued to be very aggressive going to the basket, going to the line a game high 14 free throws. Unfortunately, he missed 5 of them, including three in a row at a critical juncture in the third quarter with the Clippers down by 10 and struggling to fight back a Denver run. Gordon’s struggles at the charity stripe continue to be a mystery, but its gone on long enough to be more than a statistical blip. After shooting 85% his rookie year, Gordon dropped to 75% last year, and is sitting at under 70% this season. It’s exciting to see Eric Gordon reinvent himself as a slasher, but his drives would be a lot more valuable if he returned to shooting his free throws at 85%.
- I continue to harbor a statistically unsupportable theory that Rasual Butler is killing the Clippers. Yes, he shot 5-10 from the floor and pulled down 4 rebounds, but it seemed like every one of his missed was an early in the shot clock rhythm killer. If there was a statistic that measured missed shots that lead to transition points, Rasual and Baron would be neck and neck for the club lead. And he missed a technical free throw, which should count as two misses.
- Doh! Every time the Clippers seemed poised to really close the gap in the fourth quarter they started pulling Washington Generals plays. Aminu stole the ball then passed it no one in transition. Three Clippers went for the same rebound and knocked it out of bounds. Chris Kaman dribbled off his knee. Yikes. Just a lot of ugliness.
- Fast fact. Blake Griffin has been dominant in the first quarter this season, and mostly just better-than-average the rest of the way. Tonight, his scoring was balanced throughout the game, but his energy on the offensive boards flagged notably in the second half. Partly, this may have been that his activity in the first half was unsustainable — at times in the first quarter he was basically contesting every Nugget rebound — and partly it may have been Denver’s infamous thin air.
- I like the way Del Negro uses his time outs. Mike Dunleavy was always a play or two late; it never felt like he was squelching a run, only acknowledging that it had just happened. Del Negro called a time out early in the third quarter when the Nuggets went up 6… it didn’t work exactly, but it definitely stabilized the game.
- Maybe they should have an alternate version of that Clippers Rise promo where Blake Griffin doesn’t say that “the key is coming out of the gate hot.” You know. Now that they’re 1-5.
Anyway. So that’s that. This may have been the most winnable game on this road trip, although my Clipper sense tells me that beating a 5-0 Hornets team that’s juuust starting to get a lot of run is more possible than it seems. There were a lot of good things happening out there tonight, but it’s almost impossible for this team to win getting nothing from Chris Kaman and nothing from beyond the arc. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope the Clippers find their shooting touch on the plane to Salt Lake, where they haven’t beaten the Jazz since 2003.