So the Clippers lost, making them losers of 41 of the last 42 games played in Utah. To be expected, right? But what a game. Going into this game the Clippers were showing signs of creating an identity and tonight they looked unbelievably cohesive. Not only did they play their best half of basketball in the first half, but when the Jazz made a run, got the lead, the Clippers fought back. It wasn’t like the frontrunning win against the Thunder, this game forced the Clips to show their mettle. And man were they close. I know moral victories don’t count in the win loss column, but there is quite a few encouraging improvements.
Wow. If there was any doubt if Eric Gordon gained a new confidence from the FIBA Worlds, then tonight was your answer. Even with the Clippers blowing their first half lead and getting down as many as seven with only a few minutes left, the Clippers went to Eric Gordon and it was good. He repeatedly drove to the lane and played fantastic defense, with both of his most impressive plays coming in the last 12 seconds of the game.
First, after the Clippers dug themselves to within 2 points, they found themselves with the ball and 12 seconds to tie. Gordon had really taken the load after Kaman and Griffin disappeared (partially due to the foul situations). On the inbounds play, Gordon got a low screen and caught the ball on the wing, immediately centering up at the top of the key. He then proceeded to split the defenders and violently smash the ball through the hoop to tie the game. However, because of his rapid burst, the Clippers still had to defend a last second shot. Unsurprisingly, the Jazz inbounded to Deron WIlliams, the team’s undisputed closer. He dribbled left to the top of the key, but Gordon was right on him and completely smothered the ball, not even allowing the ball to get out of Deron’s hands, thus sending the game into overtime.
While he didn’t make plays like that, let alone have entire sequences, in the FIBA Worlds, it’s clear that Gordon has changed. His resolve is the most impressive development to his already talented game. Imagine when he starts shooting the 3 better. He’s shaping up to have an awesome season.
Sure there are some lingering worries. The Clippers played another bad third quarter. But they did manage to avoid looking like they had been shot in the stomach. Even in the midst of the Jazz onslaught, starting right from the get go of the third, that picked up momentum with Kaman’s 4th foul, the Clippers played hard. They eventually halted some of the momentum. It seemed like the attitude changed when Bledsoe was knocked hard to the ground and, instead of waiting for his teammates to pick him back up, he sprung to his feet and walked hard to the free throw line. There was no intimidation whatsoever. Then, Bledsoe had an all too easy putback at the rim, Gordon got two free throws, DeAndre drew a charge on Deron Williams, Gordon made an insanely tough fall away with Raja Bell inside of his jersey, and it was finalized by Bledsoe lobbing an alleyoop to DeAndre that almost spiked the ball through the court. This team wasn’t going anywhere without a fight.
The continuing development of Eric Bledsoe has been a pleasure to watch. In the last 4 games he’s played against Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams. And in those four games he’s looked great. Even tonight against a player some say is the best point guard in the NBA (I personally think that Chris Paul is), Bledsoe went for 14 points on 5 for 10 shooting with 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Not a bad line, right? Well throw in his ballsy three pointer late in the fourth quarter to keep the Clippers in the game.
Had the Clips not changed their game in the second half, they might have won. In the first half, the team was all about going to the big men and spacing the floor. Blake Griffin had 13 points and 7 rebounds in the first quarter. That’s right, he was on pace for 52 points and 28 rebounds (or, if you count 2 OT, then 63 points and 34 rebounds). He was unstoppable in the first half. He found his scoring opportunities with his normal right hand bank and lay-in as well as an impossibly difficult fadeaway from the extended elbow with Andrei Kirilenko draped all over him. He looked better than good, he looked precociously dominant. He looked like the best power forward in the game.
Not only that, but he even had a nice rapport with Kaman this game. The two were looking for each other when they were playing in the post. One sequence saw Griffin give a great pass from the elbow down to Kaman on the low block for a quick two points. This should be something that we see from them more and more as the season progresses. They are just too good of basketball players to continue to hinder each other the way they did in the first five games. It’s going to turn around.
But they also need to continue to get the ball. In the second half, Kaman and Blake combined for only three points on three foul shots. Not exactly impressive considering that they had 33 between the two of them in the first. Part of that is due to the foul issues, but another part happens that the Clippers just ignored them. Even in the third frame, they didn’t see a whole lot of good looks and that’s even with only mild foul trouble.
It could be that a perimeter rhythm had developed in Blake’s and Kaman’s time off the floor but the players, or the coaches at least, need to be heady enough to recognize that the team had the greatest success against that undersized, if talented, Utah Jazz team.
Like any other loss, there is plenty to learn from but they have figured out a formula that could start to pay dividends. Start Eric Bledsoe, Eric Gordon can absolutely hang as the go-to guy, their front court is unstoppable when they’re on and they can hang in and be tough even in the third quarter. Still, it’s the Clippers but there is even more hope than I even had before this season.