There are many peaks and valleys in a long NBA season, and the overarching narrative of any given year is apparent only in hindsight. Last season, on January 12, the Clippers were one game below .500, the team had been playing well, winning four impressive games in a row against the likes of Portland, the Lakers, and the Heat. They were anxiously awaiting Blake Griffin’s debut and were up handily against the Memphis Grizzlies on the road. Then the water main broke, the game was halted, and their composure faltered when the game resumed. They would go on to lose that game, learn that their prized rookie was lost for the season, and it would mark the beginning of the end for Dunleavy’s regime. At the time, the loss hurt, perhaps a bit more than others, but it would turn out to be a pivotal game in a season that had reached its apex and was rapidly tumbling downhill.
The new regime of Neil Olshey and Vinny Del Negro has started poorly, with a dismal 2-12 record that is below almost everyone’s expectations. There have been flashes of brilliance from their rookies, sporadic surges of intensity against the league’s elite teams, and lackadaisical performances against the dregs of the NBA. Then came a game against the Knicks, another struggling team that has been trying to turn their franchise around. It was a shoot-out between two of the worst defensive teams in the league. And once again, the Clippers came up short despite Blake Griffin’s stunning performance. But the showdown between Blake Griffin and Amar’e Stoudemire—the player whom Blake most closely resembles athletically—transcended the game into the realm of playground legend. That Blake broke the Clippers rookie scoring record with 44 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and ditched out 7 assists was impressive enough. But the manner in which he got those points and put his mark on the game was breathtaking.
It was more than a breakthrough game by Blake Griffin. It was a highlight show punctuated by a combination of speed and power that heralded the arrival of a rare and incandescent talent. His spectacular dunk over Knicks center Timofey Mosgov was jaw dropping because it did not seem physically possible. Though the Clippers would lose to the Knicks, making it their ninth loss in a row, there was a palpable buzz in the arena for the following game against New Orleans. Word of Blake’s sublime performance had spread, and suddenly, nonplussed Angelenos were there to witness something they had never seen before. It reminded me a bit of the electricity which surrounded a young Mike Tyson when he entered the ring, when the crowd stood in awe of the spectacle to come, and Iron Mike would launch out of his corner with a whirlwind of sledgehammer blows that was shocking in its finality. After twenty-five years of futility in Los Angeles under Donald Sterling, it would seem that the Clippers have finally found their star, the one player who can not only lead the franchise out of the wilderness, but who can do so in spectacular fashion.
It is possible that Blake’s performance against the Knicks might be the turning point for this season and perhaps the franchise. Eric Gordon has been quietly carrying the team, but it might be Blake’s intensity and the confidence borne of his quickness and strength that will lead them forward in the days ahead. The Clippers second victory against New Orleans, following the Knicks game was almost as unexpected as their first. They did almost everything humanly possible to lose the game, but for once their defensive intensity grew stronger as the game grew later and they closed out faster on the weak-side shooters. The Hornets missed their share of open shots, and Chris Paul made some uncharacteristic mistakes with the game on the line, but Blake followed up his breakthrough game with a superb outing of 24 points and 13 rebounds. The playoffs were never in the cards this year for the Clippers, not with the amount of rookies on the team and lack of depth at key positions. But the franchise desperately needs to build a solid foundation for next season, if only to prevent the malaise of irredeemable losses from corroding the confidence of their promising young core and their rookie superstar. To do so, they need to start making improvements on the defensive end, stop making the same mistakes over and over, gradually decrease the amount of their unforced turnovers, and start notching wins.
The Clippers opponent on this Thanksgiving Day is the Sacramento Kings, picked by most analysts to finish behind the Clippers in the Pacific Division. Though currently ahead of the Clippers at 4-9, The Kings have problems of their own, with rising young point guard Tyreke Evans mired in a sophomore slump, his numbers down across the board and his shooting percentages below last season. Rookie center DeMarcus Cousins has been as mercurial as advertised, brilliant one minute and teeming with barely constrained frustration the next. Their third building block, Carl Landry, has not developed into the consistent scorer they had hoped for when they traded Kevin Martin for him, though he has a solid record of torching the Clippers. The rest of their team has promise, with Jason Thompson, Omri Casspi, Donte Greene, and Francisco Garcia all capable of scoring 20 on any given night, but none of them have a defined role, and Paul Westphal has the unenviable task of making all the pieces fit. Both teams need a victory badly and have probably circled their calendar in anticipation of one.
Coming into this game, the Kings have lost 8 out of 9 games, and Paul Westphal had inserted Donte Greene and Luther Head into the starting lineup in order to play tougher defense. For the past three games, it worked to a degree, as they held their opponents to 40% shooting, but their offensive rhythm suffered. For the first few minutes of this game, at least, their defensive lineup seems effective. After Blake Griffin got fouled attempting a highlight dunk on the first possession of the game, the Kings put together a 7-0 run behind the steady jump shots of Carl Landry to establish an early 11-4 lead. Del Negro called a timeout and Aminu responded with back to back slashes to the hoop. The team settled down, with EJ hitting a three and Blake throwing down empathic dunks to entertain the national TNT audience. Al-Farouq started quickly and added two more buckets in a 14-2 Clippers run that gave them the lead for good. The Kings would hang close for the first half before the Clippers blew it open in the third quarter to win comfortably.
There were a lot of things to like about this game. On the offensive end, EJ and Blake ran their pick and roll to perfection. Sacramento had no answer for Blake’s quickness and power, his assaults of the rim quickly put Dalembert and Cousins in foul trouble, and the Kings could not go over the screen quick enough to challenge Eric’s mid range jumpers or prevent him from turning the corner on his drives to the hoop. On the few occasion that Blake is isolated on the blocks, he attacks quickly, darting left then spinning right with an effective hook shot. And if he spots an open lane, its Sports Center highlight time. The Kings players seem conscious of Blake’s recent posterizations and wanted no part of him. There were plays in the first half when Blake threw down monster dunks on perfect bounce passes from Gordon and Kings defenders shrunk away from the rim instead of challenging or fouling him. The one exception was Carl Landry. He fouled Blake hard on a few plays, one was dirty and borderline flagrant, and for the first time in his professional career, Blake looked like he was going to retaliate. But he quickly collected his cool, hit his two free throws, and when the night was over, it was clear who was the dominant player. Blake would finish with another stellar effort of 25 points on 7-11 shooting, 15 rebounds and 5 assists.
But more than his highlight reel dunks, Blake’s passing out of the double team and recognition of cutters tonight was impeccable. His chemistry with Gordon is slowly maturing, game by game, and Blake collected most of his 5 assists during the decisive third quarter run that put the game out of reach. Eric is still the engine that makes this Clippers offense go, and on this night he recovered from some early missed layups to lead all scorers with 28 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. Plus and minus numbers are sometimes misleading, but on this night they’re not. Gordon and Griffin lead everyone on both teams with an impressive +21.
The problem is when both Griffin and Gordon is on the bench. In a particular ugly stretch to start the fourth quarter, Del Negro fielded a lineup of Warren, Butler, Cook, Gomes, and Craig Smith. The Clippers promptly put together 7 bad possessions in a row, in some of the worst stretches of basketball in this dismal season, mostly culminating in idiotic Brian Cook quick threes, or Butler fading out of bounds and throwing up desperation shots as his teammates stand around and look at one another incredulously. At least the Kings weren’t able to capitalize on the Clippers’ mistakes, and once Blake and EJ returned after a timeout at the eight minute mark, the Clippers promptly moved the ball again and just like that, the easy buckets returned. The Clippers broke the Kings’ modest streak of holding three opponents to 40% shooting by hitting 50% of their shots.
As good as the Clippers pick and roll heavy offense looked, however, their defense was even better. Their big men packed the lane and prevented Tyreke Evans from getting easy layups at the hoop. Forced to shoot jump shots, Tyreke had a forgettable game, finishing with only 8 points on 2-13 shooting, with 5 assists and 3 turnovers. The Clippers still left some shooters open on drive and kicks, particularly to short corner threes, but for the most part, their perimeter close out was better and their interior rotation quicker. Blake is always good at drawing charges, but tonight even Bryan Cook rotated quick enough to draw a charge. Part of what made the Clippers defense look good tonight is the dismal state of the Kings offense right now. After a recent dispiriting loss to Utah, Beno Udrih said that they are a selfish team, their offense stagnant, and too dependent on isolations. It is a remark of a team in disarray. After a quick start against weak opposition, the Kings have now lost 9 out of 10 games. And the Clippers now have a modest two game winning streak, and the first expected win against a team of their own caliber.
Lost beneath the highlights tonight is the undercurrent of the Rookie of the Year race. TNT had scheduled two forgettable matchups featuring the Wizards and the Clippers so the national TV audience can catch a glimpse of John Wall and Blake Griffin in back to back games. The NBA did this often during Magic and Bird’s rookie campaign. It was a way to stoke interest in the league, keep the flame of their legendary NCAA tournament confrontation alive, and create a buzz around the two new rookies. On that level, Blake had his usual dominant game of 25 points,15 boards, and 5 assists with a slew of highlight reel dunks that will tickle the short attention span crowd. John Wall, on the other hand, had a terrible game; 10 points on 3 for 12 shooting with 7 assists in a 20 point loss to Atlanta. So the early advantage for the Rookie of the Year race goes to Blake Griffin on this night.
The Clippers can now fly to Phoenix with some consolation that they have put together back-to-back wins for the first time since last February. Their upcoming schedule is now brutal once again. It is the price they pay for not taking care of business against some of the weaker teams in recent weeks. With Phoenix on Friday, Utah on Sunday, and then the red hot Spurs, Denver, Portland and the Lakers coming up, they will have to find some unexpected wins along the way. They have shown signs of maturity in these past few games, perhaps sparked by that extraordinary outburst from Blake Griffin in that loss to the Knicks. Perhaps the Clippers players are beginning to realize that they have a rare talent in their midst, an unstoppable force that can leave opponents demoralized and turn around the fortunes of a franchise, its history and curse be damned. Whether that story will be written in the coming months and years remain to be seen. But the first draft of that narrative is beginning to look promising.