Just when I had written off this season and this game, the Clippers go out and play their most spirited game of the year. The New Orleans Hornets probably thought the same thing I did and came into this game thinking that they were going to walk all over the Clippers just like almost every other team had, just like they had a couple weeks ago. The Hornets played hard and dominated the first 20 minutes of the game by getting good production from CP3 and David West.
(Blake being Blake)
Fortunately for the Clippers, the Hornets backed off and the hard working, if undisciplined, Clippers started to paw back. Their first half surge revolved around a stellar contribution from Al-Farouq Aminu who scored 16 in the first. What was different about this game was the Clippers were finally the team that swung the ball from side to side to get Aminu, their small forward, the open threes. And he drilled a couple of them.
The Clippers rode that momentum back into the game and appeared to have the game tied before Eric Gordon’s floater at the halftime horn was deemed shot after the buzzer. That made it seem like the start of a typical Clipper night, one simple bad break going into the half (not unlike Jason Kidd’s heave in the Dallas game) compounding into a second half funk. Maybe showing the first signs of maturity (don’t think that this will be a steady ascent, there will be falls back), the Clippers came out hard in the 3rd quarter. Even when the Hornets continued to go through West, the Clippers fought all the way back and out of their deficit and into a 4 point lead. Scary new territory.
And Blake was a big part of it as he had 20 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists (after going assistless in the first half). While Blake didn’t have the biggest scoring quarter, 5 points, Eric Gordon was there to bolster the offense. He scored 9 points on 3 for 4 shooting (1 for 2 from three!).
Then it went to the 4th. There was a sense of excitement in the building but there was some confusion too. While it could be assumed that Blake would need to play a large portion of the 4th quarter to ensure the win, Brian Cook played almost the first five minutes of the 4th. But he played really well. On one play Cookie pump faked, dribble drove through defenders for a dunk. Cookie even finished the quarter (and his game total) with 6 points in the last frame. I’ve been hard on him most of the year, but I have to give credit when he’s deserving. He hustled for rebounds, knocked down some shots and was very useful.
Even with the hard play though, the Clippers still tried to give this one away. Their free throw shooting was atrocious and it caused all sorts of anxiety in the stadium. They went 17-34 over the course of the game and 9 for 15 in the second half, leaving the door open for the Hornets. And the Hornets looked like they would take advantage, especially when Paul ripped the ball out of Butler’s hand with the Hornets only trailing by 3 and 15 seconds left on the clock.
Oddly, though, the Hornets played terribly down the stretch. Paul did get the ball to Jarret Jack, who drew a foul and made two free throws to get the Hornets within 1, but the ensuing possessions were ugly. The Clippers refused to ice the game, Cookie going 1 for 2 from the line. But on the other end, Paul brought the ball up and promptly threw it out of bounds to David West on the block. It wasn’t even close to a good pass, which is an anomaly for the guy that leads the league in assist to turnover ratio.
While the misstep will happen, it was a fortunate break for the Clippers even in light of their best play of the season.
Let’s look at the keys:
Keep Chris Paul in check? Absolutely. This guy came into the game averaging 16.8 points and 10.5 assists. What did he do tonight? 14 points on 5 for 12 shooting (3 for 5 from three), 4 rebounds, 6 assists (!), 2 steals and 4 turnovers. That’s quite a dip in every category. What’s more is that Paul had only 2 points, 1 assist, 1 steal (that we’ll talk about later) and 2 rebounds. Those are terrible numbers for Paul. Some of it can just be an off night, but the defense has to be mentioned. There were times in the first half when Paul was the great point guard that he is. He had three threes, a slick and one and ran the offense beautifully. But the time when the Clippers usually muck it up, they held Paul down. Great stuff.
Rebounds were about neutral, which shouldn’t happen against the Hornets. Both teams had 31 rebounds, Blake had 13 by himself (4 on the offensive glass) but there wasn’t much dominance. There was a very good rebound by Brian Cook at the end of the third quarter, when the Hornets were trying to jump back into the game, and Cook held off David West. It doesn’t sound like much, but those little moments haven’t occurred nearly enough for the Clippers.
Rotate on defense (suppressing the opposing SF’s game). I was tired of this the whole season. The one win that they had, against the Thunder, I didn’t even get to see because I had class. So all I’ve seen has been the lazy rotations and opposing small forwards marking their territory in the corners. Of anything this season, that’s the thing that has been the most upsetting to me because it signifies a lack of teamwork and communication. Tonight though, the poor rotations mainly occurred on two Chris Paul threes in the first quarter. After that, there weren’t too many that were indefensible.
Even though David West had a great game against the Clips, I didn’t see anything that struck me as poor rotations, just poor defense. Blake, DeAndre and Cook all guarded West. DeAndre probably had the best success against West. A great stop was on the first play of the third quarter, it was vivid that West was bothered by DeAndre’s length because West didn’t even get the ball to the basket from 5 feet. Cook and Blake also played West, but I thought both played substandard defense. Cook just can’t hang on the defensive end and Blake plays this weird brand of stay at home defense that, I think, works better in college where he can bully guys into taking bad shots, but in the pros they just elevate right over him no problem. It’s weird that his defensive game is so boring and unathletic when his offense is anything but. In any case, the bigs weren’t getting beat and needing help, they just kept West in front and let him make shots over them. Not great.
What I will get into, just for a moment, is VDN’s match ups. I think he did a nice job of putting DeAndre on West, but I’m still tantalized by Aminu on small PFs like West. Aminu could really bother him with his reach. Sure, it would require Aminu to cover Paul on the switch with some frequency and Aminu hasn’t figured out screens yet. However, it wasn’t like anyone else was stopping West, it may have been worth a try. I keep thinking that Aminu will evolve into a very good defensive presence. There was a point in the first half when Aminu swatted West from behind (and then took it coast to coast). I just have to imagine that the smaller guys he can handle.
My last key was taking care of the ball. The Clippers only turned the ball over 12 times, 2 times fewer than normal. This is extra impressive when you consider that Bledsoe is the only true point guard on the roster and he only played 23 minutes per game. Gordon, Foye and Warren are all combo guards and they had to handle the duties of ballhandling more than normal.
VDN’s substitutions #2: I don’t understand why Bledsoe didn’t play the end of the game. Keeping Rasual Buter in almost cost the Clippers the game as Butler, who has a hurt dribbling hand, had the ball stripped by Chris Paul when the Clippers were only up by three. VDN at least immediately recognized his mistake and threw Bledsoe in the game, but I think Bledsoe’s very important at the end of games because he’s so fast that he can dribble his way out of almost anything.
I didn’t foresee Aminu having as great of a first half as he did, nor did I expect he would have as bad a second half. In the first half he shot 6 for 7, scored 16 points, buried 2 threes, had a transition block to lay-up. Aminu initiated that come back run that almost lead to the Clippers tying the game after being down 11 with a minute and a half left to play in the first half.
That said, he was awful in the second half. He didn’t score any points and the only effect on the game that I remember was when he ricocheted off of Chris Paul to be whistled for a charging. He’s still learning. Tonight seemed like everything that we should expect to see from Aminu over the course of the season, just in one game.
Also, DeAndre Jordan played a great game. 12 points on 6 for 9 shooting that involved mostly dunks and putbacks. He had 8 rebounds and played, if not good defense, then the best defense the Clippers showed on David West. I never know what to expect from DeAndre, mostly a few dumb turnovers, but he didn’t even have that.
Even though the Clippers won’t make the playoffs, they showed a lot of promise against the Hornets that they’ll develop over the course of the year. That’s all anyone can ask for, considering how they started the year.
Superbonus: video from reader, itsphil, capturing the crowd’s elation after Ryan Gomes’ putback.