After a brutal four game winless road trip, the Clippers returned to the Staples Center Friday night, battered and depleted by injuries. When the 2010-2011 schedule came out, Clippers fans glanced at their first nine opponents with trepidation. While a 1 and 8 record to begin the season does not augur well for the dawn of the Olshey and Del Negro era, there are some small slivers of light amidst the deepening gloom. For one, the rash of injuries to Baron Davis, Randy Foye, Chris Kaman, and Eric Gordon have opened up minutes for all four Clippers rookies. Thrust into the spotlight, Bledsoe and Aminu have comported themselves well even as the team’s offensive firepower diminishes. The one rookie who seems most affected by the absence of EJ and Kaman is Blake Griffin. After an electrifying start to his rookie campaign, Griffin’s energy and effectiveness has dissipated as teams collapsed upon him quickly without the threat of EJ sniping from the wing. So it was crucial that Gordon returned to the Clippers starting lineup tonight, for both the Clippers offense and Griffin’s confidence.
The depleted Clippers fought hard in their four losses but came up empty against superior opponents. And now they return home to play five straight games against the dregs of the NBA. If there ever was a do-or-die moment in the young NBA season, that time for the Clippers is now. They have been buried under another avalanche of losses to begin the season, they are without two of their starters, and Gordon’s shoulder stinger is dangerous in the hands of Jasen Powell. But for the young team to build some confidence and arrest the downward spiral of this new campaign, they must find a way to win these next five games, starting with tonight.
Their opponent on this Friday evening is the Detroit Pistons, a team that is going through an identity crisis and mired in a funk. Six years removed from their triumphant march to the NBA Finals, the 2010 Pistons are but shadows of their former glory. Only Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, and Ben Wallace remain from their championship season. And now their locker room is divided between three old veterans and their tenuous future of Austin Daye, Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey, and Greg Monroe. Their coach, John Kuester, recently told CBS Sport’s Ben Golliver that they had played like strangers after a disheartening blowout loss to Portland, in which they totaled 5 assists in the second half. A week earlier, Kuester had yanked Stuckey in a game against Atlanta when the young point guard ignored him on the sidelines. Trying to regain control of the team, the embattled coach refused to play Stuckey against their next opponent. The Pistons recorded their first win against the Bobcats without him, but Prince later admitted that even their wins don’t feel like wins, and that something feels terribly wrong.
The architect of this dysfunctional team is Joe Dumars, the quiet stalwart who had once anchored the Bad Boys’ reign of terror, and who had expertly assembled the key pieces for the Pistons last championship season. Now the once proud franchise is in disarray; with the team up for sale, dwindling attendance in a region decimated by America’s industrial decline, and the last link to their glory years tarnished and vilified. If there is a melancholy that pervades over this franchise, that Golliver captured in his portrait of Richard Hamilton; his shoulders slumped in the locker room after yet another loss, “silent, oblivious to his teammates and the world,” it might stemmed from their late realization that success is tenuous, that a future which had once seemed so bright and everlasting is fragile, and once lost, is almost impossible to regain. Rip Hamilton won the NBA championship when he was 25 years old and his running mate Tayshaun Prince was only 23. They had demolished a Lakers team filled with Hall of Fame players in convincing fashion, putting an empathic end to the Shaq-Kobe dynasty, while their own young stars seem primed for future dominance. They would not know that they had reached their pinnacle as a team during that series, and that they would never get back to such rarefied heights again.
And so, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace trot out for perhaps one final time as teammates against a young Clippers squad desperate for a win. For the aging Pistons trio, only six years removed from their championship season, but a lifetime ago, it is a battle to salvage some of what they had lost; that carefree confidence which they had taken for granted when they were young and thought themselves infallible. For the Clippers, it is the first tentative step back toward respectability and substantiating their youthful potential, which glimmers enticingly on the edge of the visible horizon. The aging Pistons veterans represent both a promise and a warning for the Clippers franchise. As a young team, they had reached the pinnacle of their professional ambitions, but what could have been sustained was instead wasted, and a dynasty was never born. Promise and potential are fleeting, after all. The Clippers must make certain that they do not waste theirs. They cannot allow the numbness of unrelenting losses to sap away the confidence and bright eyed enthusiasm of youth.
The game opened with the Clippers coming out flat. They were misfiring on offense early and their defensive rotations in the first half was atrocious. The Pistons knocked down shots from the perimeter at a harrowing pace. Detroit shot out to a 9-2 lead and hushed the Staples Center crowd early. For the night, the Pistons would shoot an astounding 61% from the 3 point line, hitting 11 out of 18 shots. The Clippers tried to climb back into the game with the hustle of Al Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin. But time after time, Detroit would answer every Clippers charge. With a few seconds left, EJ made a blinding full court drive for a layup to end the first quarter, but the Clippers still trailed 26-19.
The second quarter began where the first quarter ended. The Clippers trying to mount a rally, but the Pistons continuing to answer every Clippers bucket with a three ball. Most of their shots were wide open. And they knocked them down at an alarming regularity. T-Mac even made a brief appearance and promptly hit a 3 of his own to remind everyone that he is still here, in the Association, and not in Turkey somewhere. Bledsoe answered by throwing up a beautiful alley-oop to DeAndre Jordan that brought fans out of their seats. Then Ben Gordon hit a 3 pointer right back to silence the crowd. The Clippers failed to close out repeatedly and they got punished for it. They trimmed the deficit a few times to one point, to two, with Bledsoe leading the charge, but they were trading two points for each Pistons three. Charlie Villanueva was so wide open at times that he might have been alone in the gym, he shot 5 for 7 from beyond the arc and led all scorers with 30 points. And despite another impressive EJ full court drive to the hoop to close out the second quarter, the Clippers deficit grew to 10 points at 47-57.
But for once the Clippers came out of the locker room and seized the game in the third quarter. They began to defend the perimeter with much greater intensity and they slowly began to close the deficit. The key play was at the 8:45 mark, when Blake made a steal in the open court and sprinted down the other end to throw down a thunderous reverse jam that electrified the crowd. The team and arena was buzzing and Bledsoe aggressively pushed the tempo, feeding EJ for a fast break. Now the Pistons were on their heels, their perimeter shots were being challenged and they began misfiring. Gordon, Blake and Bledsoe, the best of the Clippers bright promise were leading the charge. EJ bullied his way to the hoop and the Pistons seem to have no answer for his strength or quickness. He feeds Blake for another monstrous dunk to tie the game at 66.
Then a strange thing happened. It was as if the Clippers had expended so much energy to tie the game that they had nothing left for the final knockout blow. The Pistons seemed ready to topple, they were now uncertain, and they stared daggers at one another after every turnover and missed shot. But the Clippers could not mount an effective play of their own. For almost three minutes, the two teams went back and forth, neither team able to execute, to decisively seize the momentum and the game. It was as if neither team believed that they can win. Bledsoe took matters into his own hands, aggressively driving to the hoop and drawing fouls. The two teams would trade free throws and end the third quarter in a 74-74 tie.
There were moments in the fourth quarter, when it felt as if the Clippers would decisively close out this game and pull away for a comfortable victory. But it was not to be, it would grind down to a dog fight between two desperate teams. Daye and Villaneuva would hit huge three pointers to keep the Pistons close. Blake Griffin, who had been so magnificent with 18 early points now began to tire and miss around the rim. It was left for Gordon to carry the team’s offensive burden and he did so magnificently. With the Clippers down 87-89, EJ came out of a timeout and calmly hit a long two to tie the game. Maxiell scores at the other end and once again EJ answers with another jumper. With the game coming down to the wire, Gordon hit shots from all over the floor. At the 5 minute mark, EJ had 20 points. Three minutes later he had 28 points and had a hand in every Clippers basket. For a brief moment, you saw within EJ something rare and incandescent, as if his breakthrough moment had arrived, and that he was about to take a giant step forward into the rarefied air of hoop immortals. His jumper gave the Clippers a 99-97 lead but the ageless Rip Hamilton cooly answered with a 20 footer to tie the game.
With 30 seconds left, EJ drew the defenders to him and hit a wide open Rasual Butler for a three pointer. It was the right play by a hot player who can do no wrong. The arena erupted. It looked as if the Clippers would finally notch their second win of the season. But then they failed to play any semblance of defense. Prince effortlessly drove into the lane for a layup in 5 seconds. Then Gomes was fouled and made only one of two free throws. It was all the Pistons needed. With 11 seconds left, Stuckey once again drove straight into the teeth of the Clippers defense and drew a foul. He made both free throws to send the game into overtime.
It was in overtime that the Clippers fell apart. After Bledsoe’s jumper at the elbow gave them a brief lead, the Pistons would score 9 straight points to put the game away. It was here that EJ’s sublime performance dissipated. He mishandled the ball at the end of regulation and he lost his dribble in the first minute of overtime. It had only been a few minutes ago that he had dominated a game in a manner that few players are capable of, but suddenly his confidence seem shaken. The Clippers kept on finding a wide open Rasual at the short three and Rasual kept on missing. At one point Rasual missed five straight shots in overtime and just like that, the game was over. The Clippers fell to 1 and 9 in a game they desperately needed, against a Pistons team that was fractured and reeling.
For the Clippers tonight, EJ finished with 28 points, Bledsoe finished with 18, and Griffin finished with 18 points and 18 rebounds. They had all performed admirably, in the full splendor of their youth. But you get the sense that if only EJ had reached 30 points, if only Bledsoe and Blake reached the 20 point barrier, if only the Clippers had pulled out a victory, something might have changed irrevocably tonight, that the team would have grown up by leaps and bounds, and the franchise would have been theirs for the taking. Instead we are left once again with a loss, and with promises of baby steps. It is all well and good to keep your eyes fixed on the distant promise of potential and future glory. But as the Pistons have shown, at some point, that glittering promise turn to dust. There will come a time this year when the Clippers young core must step up and fulfill their potential, or be crushed by it. Losses are corrosive, even for the young. Elite competitors must abhor losses with all their heart, because once they become numbed to it, they are finished. The Clippers will be looking to notch their second win of the season against the New Jersey Nets on Monday night.