The Denver Nuggets are part of a recurring theme for Clippers opponents this year. The Clips have lost the last three games against the Nuggets, the last 8 when playing them in Denver in addition to having not won on the road once this year (0-8). Difficult obstacles to surmount, to be sure, but the Clippers have been their best this year with the odds the longest (as long as they are home). They snapped their 0-4 start against a Thunder team that many picked to challenge the Lakers for the Western Conference title this year. Before blowing out the Kings, they beat the New Orleans Hornets, who, at the time, were owners of the best record in the NBA. And then there was the most improbable win: the exhilarating, overdue slugfest against the San Antonio Spurs, their first win against the team since 2006.
It’s like the Clippers need the high level of difficulty in their games so that they can display the rare brinkmanship of an unbelievably young and talented team. However, they are only capable of it at home. So far at least. This is not unique amongst young players, young teams. The ability to maintain composure and continue to execute on the road is not a measure of talent but a learned trait in the NBA. Few players are precocious enough to play well on the road right away.
This is where Baron comes into the picture. It’s strange to look to Baron for a form of consistency, because no player has ever made me waffle more than him. Is he good? Yes. Is he bad? Yes. It just depends on where he is. The vicious reality is that he can give a certain level of stewardship that the Clippers can’t yet get from Bledsoe. In the win against the Spurs, Baron played very well and was a large reason that the Clippers won. I’m the biggest proponent of Bledsoe as the future point guard of the franchise, but Baron got the Clippers players some of the easiest looks I’ve seen all year. I’m not even talking about the trailer drop off and the alleyoop to Blake, but the simple bounce pass to Ryan Gomes at the end of the first quarter for the easiest two points that Gomes had all year and then the pass to Gordon off of a cut to get him a dunk. That hasn’t been something we’ve seen this year from the Clippers. It’s movement on offense. The majority of the Clippers’ points have been hard earned without Baron. And that could be one of the reasons that the three point shooting has been so bad. In the game against the Spurs, Gordon shot 40 percent, much closer to normal for him. And Rasual shot 50 percent. Useful numbers to be sure. If these numbers trend up the Clippers are only going to see more and more wins.
The question is if Baron can stay in this mode. I wrote that if he could accept being a secondary option, or even a tertiary option, he could do really well. Because Baron is a terrible shooter. And it will probably continue that way. What made his play so great against the Spurs wasn’t newly improved shooting (he still shot a ragged 2 for 6 from the field), it was the limited attempts. He didn’t force anything and looked to get other players involved. This is his strength, getting people the ball. The alleyoops to Blake are now a viable option for the Clips. Bledsoe just doesn’t have that touch yet, and I can’t count how many times someone not named Baron threw Blake an alleyoop to Blake that was, as Jordan Heimer says, like sailing a high pass to a wide receiver over the middle. Just dangerous.
It’s funny that for Baron to receive the most attention, to change the perception of his quality of play, he’s going to have to back off his old goals. Now, Griffin and Gordon are the top options, Bledsoe and Aminu need to get some run, Baron needs to be in semi-permanent facilitator and Kaman will come back as a second, legitimate post option. The best teams are the ones that have defined roles, and if Baron can see that the team needs him in a facilitator role, he will be able to sublimate his play, skip the liquid step of scoring and be that nebulous thing: a leader. It’s a lot to ask, because Baron has disappointed the Clipper before, but it’s worthwhile. If this specialization of roles can occur, giving all the players freedom within their own parameters, there is no telling how much they can improve in the year. Those wins over impressive teams suggest that they can improve greatly over the course of the year. And if you look at VDN’s track record, that’s what he does.
What the Clippers can’t do, is assume that just because they beat the Spurs, that they have learned their lesson, overcome their obstacle. There are many, many more lessons for the team to learn and obstacles to conquer. Instead of them thinking that the continued obstacles are a curse of a bad team, they have to know that the continued addressing of problems is the mark of great teams. They have to continue to work harder, because I’ll be honest, I saw quite a few open looks missed by the Spurs. They did not play a perfect game (hint: there is no such thing). I know that part of a good defense is playing hard so that the opposing team loses rhythm to the point that they miss shots, but it’s still a long shot to bank on Matt Bonner going 0 for 6 from 3 point land. And it wasn’t just him, in the second quarter, there was a possession when Ginobili missed a wide open three, only for the Spurs to get the rebound and get another wide open shot from the free-throw line and miss that too. This is not the standard, and it will be even more difficult when the Clippers are traveling on the road and the Nuggets will be in their comfort zone.
Even though the Clippers put up a good fight against the Nuggets in the last match-up, the Nuggets didn’t have Nene to bang around on the inside. It won’t be quite so easy for Blake to go off against the Nuggets like the last game. But Blake has a post game, even if it’s not as refined as Pau Gasol’s or Tim Duncan’s. Just look at how he played the Nuggets last game.
There isn’t one dunk on that highlight reel and the positioning he gets on the low block is so good that, for now, he only needs a few post moves to be effective. There just aren’t that many players in the league that can mark him. He’s too strong or too fast or too strong and fast for the players that guard him.
Defensively, the Clippers are going to have most of their problems. Not only do they have Carmelo Anthony, one of the premier wing scorers in the league, but they are surrounded by a plethora of long range threats. J.R. Smith, Al Harrington, Arron Afflalo, Chauncey Billups, and Ty Lawson comprise a cadre of shooters that make 39 percent of their 3 pointers. It’s not as good as the 42 percent that the Spurs make, but it’s still going to be a defensive gauntlet, especially for the Clippers, who have the worst 3 point defense in the league. They allow opposing teams to shoot 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, that’s atrocious. They can’t count on poor shooting nights when the teams are at home, so they will have to rotate and pressure. It will be dicey because Carmelo breaks down defenses so well, the Clippers are going to need communication to make sure that the rotations make shots difficult for the Nuggets.
The Clips are still a young team, so the odds are stacked against them being able to know each other enough to beat the Nuggets, but they do have a chance because they appear to enjoy being world beaters.
Note: I’ll be chatting at ESPN’s Daily Dime Live tonight, stop by for lots of basketball talk.