Eric Bledsoe’s point guard opponents just aren’t getting any easier are they? Since picking up the job in the San Antonio game, he’s had to face Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams and now, la creme de la creme, Chris Paul.
Not only is Chris Paul healthy and dominating, but the Hornets are off to their first 6-0 start in franchise history. And it’s not like they’ve been doing it against a bunch of cupcakes. They beat San Antonio in San Antonio, they successfully defended their home floor against LeBron James and the Heat, they beat the Bucks twice (once at home, once away), beat the Rockets in Houston and beat Carmelo, Chauncey and the Nuggets. While the Bucks and the Rockets have subpar records through 7 games, not one of those teams are ‘bad.’ The Bucks made the playoffs last year and have Bogut back and the Rockets were a 42 win team and got a healthy Yao back on the floor (if for only 24 minutes a game).
This is in large part due to an offseason retooling, a shift in attitude within the management under GM Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams and, most importantly, a healthy Chris Paul.
The Hornets used their one extraneous trade chip in Darren Collison (paired with James Posey) to garner Trevor Ariza. Pretty big upgrade to go from last season’s Collison and Posey to Paul and Ariza. And it’s showing mostly on the defensive side. The Hornets have only allowed 91.5 points per game, ranking them third in the league, so the Clippers are going to have their work cut out for them on offense.
Although the Clippers have been starting to get into a rhythm, as they’ve been putting up more points in recent games. Their last three games have seen the Clips post 107, 104 and 107 (in 2 OT, 91 in regulation) in the last three games, much better than their 80s and low 90s totals in the games prior. Remember the Clippers team that was ranked dead last in offensive efficiency? Well that same team has quickly gained 5 spots in that department in the last 3 games, and they’re now ranked 25th in the league. Not a huge jump but it’s definitely heading in the right direction quickly.
Not only that, but the defense has improved as well. In Defensive Efficiency rankings, the Clippers have moved up to 20th in the league. Still, not even average, but if you look how they’re trending, it’s very positive.
All of this may be in large part due to the absence of Baron Davis and the emergence of Eric Bledsoe. Here’s a fun stat for you all, handed down to me from the ESPN statistical gods on high (Pete Newmann), when Baron Davis is on the floor the Clippers are outscored by 20.9 points per 48 minutes. When he’s not on the court? The Clippers have been outscored only by 0.8 points per 48 minutes. Yes, you read that right, that’s a 20.1 points per 48 minutes improvement.
Watching the Clippers, I know that they’ve been much better when Bledsoe or Gordon have been running the point, but I didn’t know it was that egregious. Which begs the question, even when Baron comes back, should he even get the starting gig? I understand not allowing guys to lose their jobs due to injury, but when a guy comes in and vastly outperforms you the way Bledsoe has (13 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists on 53 percent from the field, 57 percent from 3, although he is just 55 percent from the free throw line) it seems insane to go back to what was clearly not working before. In fact, Baron was playing so bad that this demotion might have happened regardless, even if it would have required more time.
And to reiterate, Bledsoe hasn’t been playing against scrubs either. He’s been a catalyst to making the Clippers look competitive in the last 3-4 games against Parker, Westbrook, Billups and Deron. There is reason to hope that this trend can continue (our own Alex Siskin agrees). Chris Paul tonight? Something tells me that Bledsoe won’t be scared. He may be soft-spoken but that should be confused for timidity. You see the Utah game? Bledsoe was knocked down hard in the third quarter and catapulted back up before his teammates could even reach their hands down to pull him up. It wasn’t a slight against them, Bledsoe was just showing that you can’t keep him down, and I love that resiliency on the Clippers.
Additionally, Kaman has begun to look much better. He snapped out of that 29 percent from the field shooting slump to start burying baskets again. And it hasn’t hindered Blake’s game at all (18 points, 11 rebounds per game). The only time Blake and Kaman looked really out of sorts simultaneously was when they played the Mavericks (when they combined for 9 for 30 from the field) and this Hornets team doesn’t have any of the length similar to the Mavericks. It’s not like the big men won’t be able to stand up for themselves. David West and Emeka Okafor are 6’9” and 6’10”, both giving up at least an inch and some lbs. to Blake and Kaman.
David West, their second option on offense, prays on PFs that have a slower game or aren’t as strong on the block. Guess what David West? You got a power forward that is both strong enough for the post game and fast enough to guard you on the wing. I’ll be watching that matchup the whole night, because if the Clippers can shut down West, it’ll go a long way in limiting Chris Paul’s options.
Tonight, the Clippers are going to have to do a few specific things well: guard Chris Paul (Bledsoe has the strength and the speed, but it’s still CP3) and David West (Blake is more than capable. sidenote: will Blake get his second block of the season? This seems underreported and slightly troubling), get their big men’s offense flowing (since that was the key in their best half of basketball this season when Blake and Kaman dominated the Jazz bigs in the first half), and maintain composure/play well in the third quarter.
I feel comfortable that the Clippers will get a good effort from EJ, even though he has a shoulder stinger. I don’t see him missing the game because the stinger was in his non shooting shoulder, nor do I see him playing poorly. He may shoot poorly, but that hasn’t affected his numbers in his bad games (except against Dallas when he went 2 for 9 for 9 points).
Overall, I think it’s more than fair to say that the Hornets have the advantage tonight, but with Eric Bledsoe running point for the Clippers upswing, they could beat New Orleans.
(Also: I’ll be chatting during the game at ESPN’s Daily Dime Live if you feel so inclined to join in)