Maybe it was tired legs on the second night of a back-to-back. Maybe a team lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers left them drowsy with tryptophan. Maybe Marv Albert jinxed us by complimenting the Clippers’ tight defensive rotations one time too many on Thursday night’s national broadcast. Or maybe the Clippers are simply destined to always look their worst against the Suns. Whatever the reason, the Clippers came out flat in the first quarter and were practically run out of the building, allowing 42 points and trailing by as many as 25. Yes, they battled back, twice cutting the Suns’ lead to a mere four points in the third quarter, but the hole was simply too big to overcome.
So what happened in that first quarter? Well, it was those old Clipper bugaboos – perimeter defense and turnovers. One commonality between the two teams the Clippers beat on their “winning streak” is that neither shoots the ball well from distance (remember, Peja didn’t play in the Hornets game). Tonight, we were reminded that the Clippers defensive strategy often seems predicated on hoping that NBA players will miss open threes. That might work against Tyreke Evans… not so much against Jason Richardson and Goran Dragic, who drained five combined threes in the first quarter, all on wide-open shots. When the Clippers did adjust in the second quarter, running hard at shooters, Dragic and Steve Nash picked them apart with backdoor passes to cutting wings.
It was a shame, really, because the Clippers wasted some big efforts from some unlikely people. Ryan Gomes and Brian Cook shot a combined 7 for 9 from behind the arc, which probably won’t happen too often. Cookie also grabbed ten rebounds, for a rare double-double. Like many in Clipper Nation, I’ve been critical of Cook’s signing, but he once again did exactly what Neil Olshey promised he would, stretching the floor with that hideous looking line-drive jump shot. And Ryan Gomes not only scored a season high 20 points, but also guarded Steve Nash effectively when the Clips went on their run in the third quarter.
As per usual, Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin led the way statistically, but neither played as well as his box score. It’s a reflection of how good Griffin has been that he can score 20, grab 14 boards, and still leave the impression of having a sub-par game. Robin Lopez sat this one out with a knee sprain, and, with their only true interior defender sidelined, the Suns seemed vulnerable to a monster Griffin game that never really materialized. In the first quarter, the Suns double teamed him immediately every time he touched the ball, keeping him away from the basket, and forcing three stolen passes out of the double team, all of which led to points on the other end. The interior opened up once Gomes and Cook began to rain threes, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – not before the Clippers had dug themselves that 25 point hole. Even Griffin’s 14 rebounds were a little deceptive; very few were in traffic, and only one came on the offensive glass.
Eric Gordon scored 32 points, but struggled at the point, with at least three of his five turnovers coming on forced passes in traffic. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the Clippers should institute a “jump-pass fine.” Just shoot the ball once you’re in the air. Please. And how long do we wait before kind of panicking about E.J.’s jump shot? He was 2 for 8 tonight from downtown, and his shooting percentage from deep for the season continues to hover around 20%. I’ve noticed that Gordon actually catching the ball differently than he did during the summer’s World Championships, swiveling the ball low past his hips in preparation for an (inevitable) drive to the hoop, as opposed to squaring up for his jumper. I admit, I have no idea if this is affecting his shot, but it doesn’t seem too far fetched that thinking penetration first may have added a hitch to his stroke. Someone call David Thorpe.
Eric Bledsoe sprained his ankle midway through the second quarter, and the report on the post-game is that he’ll miss at least a week with a high ankle sprain. It kind of goes without saying that this is very bad news for a team that was already starting its third string point guard. Randy Foye is playing again, but in extremely limited stretches – he played just five minutes in the first half tonight and didn’t return after the break. On the other hand (and with the Clippers there’s always another hand) we can expect to see a lot more Willie Warren over the next couple of weeks. I know plus/minus can be fairly meaningless in regards to small sample sizes, but Willie has one of the best +/- on the team, and has shown off a good handle and a smooth shot in his infrequent opportunities. Perhaps he will become the latest Clips rookie to play his way into the long-term rotation.
Pity Vinny Del Negro. Coaching the Clippers is a tough enough job, but the point guard injuries have added a high degree of difficulty. The Clippers will try once again to get over the hump against the Jazz on Sunday, but trying to put together 96 total minutes of a back-court that might be able to contain Deron Williams will not be easy… and that’s assuming the game doesn’t go to double overtime again.
Happy Thanksgiving, Clipper Fan.