No one knows better than Clipper fans that not all lost seasons are created equal. Clipper fans have cheered for unlikeable teams, soulless teams, talentless teams, and teams full of guys we knew wouldn’t be around long. Some seasons have been fiascoes, some embarrassments, many simply forgettable. So, as 4-15 starts go, this one hasn’t been that bad right? In a season in which we were never realistically going to be a part of the playoff hunt, the early (and relatively minor seeming) injuries to Baron Davis and Chris Kaman have allowed the Clippers not only to showcase and discover the depth of our young talent, but also provided us with a ready-made excuse for all the losing. As long as the young guys played hard — which to their credit they’ve done almost every night — no defeat felt all that terrible, because no defeat felt terribly systematic or indicative of the team’s true potential.
But the Denver loss Friday night… that loss stayed with me all weekend. Yes, there was the panoply of whistles, and the dozens of bounces that didn’t go the Clips’ way, but more than anything else it was the the lack of available excuses. With the exception of Randy Foye, Friday night’s Clippers were essentially the Clippers I was so excited to watch coming into the season (slightly better, actually, since Kaman and Baron return to a team that essentially discovered two extra rotation players in Aminu and Bledsoe.) And, lo and behold, with all of their pieces in place, the Clippers looked like a team with a lot of options, all of a sudden. There were no more of those Dead Zone lineups where going to Craig Smith repeatedly on the block is the only offensive option. Guys looked better rested, more energetic on defense. On the other hand, there was no moral victory either. It was simply a game that could have and should have been won, but wasn’t. The Clippers were the better NBA team on the court, and they came away without the win — and that stung. (My friend Manny, who not only watches almost every Clipper game with me, but is responsible for my Clipper fandom to begin with, stared at the TV blankly for maybe ten long seconds after the Denver game ended, exhaled deeply, announced “OK. I’m over it,” and ordered a pizza… but he’s been a Clipper fan longer and has more practice.)
Anyway, the point is I was excited for tonight. The same maxim holds for fans as for players: after a bad loss you’re always eager to get back on the court. And I kind of thought maybe Friday night was a turning point. With Baron and Kaman out this past month, the Clippers could only win with at least two superlative individual offensive efforts. On Friday, their return turned the Clipper offense (at least briefly) into more than just a collection of occasionally impressive individual parts, and I was eager to see it flowing again against Portland. The Blazers came into tonight as a struggling team with an embattled coach, a hobbled superstar, and an overall number one draft pick looking on glumly in an oddly-fitting suit… (I mean, you’d think I was describing the Clippers, right?) It seemed as likely a time to grab a win in the Rose Garden as we had seen in a long time.
And then the game started. I’ll say this for the Clippers — when they come out flat, they really come out flat. They missed lay-ups, airballed open 3-pointers, allowed the Trailblzers offensive rebound after offensive rebound; DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman picked up five combined personal fouls in the first six minutes. A few early hard fouls on Blake Griffin seemed to affect his aggressiveness; at any rate, he stayed completely away from his attacking spin moves throughout the first half, seeming content to fire mid-range jumpers. The Blazers didn’t seem like they were playing all that well, just doing their usual thing where they keep every offensive rebound alive, hit the occasional dagger from 3, and make it impossible to get off a clean shot in the paint. (On a personal note, Andre Miller couldn’t be more irritating if he started coming through the television and administering nuggies to Clipper fans in their living rooms.) The Clippers couldn’t find any rhythm on offense. They scored a mere 15 points in the first quarter, and had more personal fouls (6) than made field goals (5). The second quarter went slightly better (in that it didn’t go any worse), but the Clippers still went into the break down a whipping 22 points.
Luckily for the Clippers, the Blazers came out of the break struggling to score as badly as the Clippers had in the first half. The Blazers made only four field goals in the third quarter, allowing the Clippers to cut the lead to 12 going into the fourth. That’s when things got chippy. The game was physical throughout, but the Rose Garden crowd didn’t really get involved until Brian Cook was assessed a Flagrant 2 foul and heaved from the game for shoving Joel Przybilla to the ground rather than allow him an open lay-up. Frankly, the shove looked pretty tame for a Type 2 flagrant, and Przybilla had administered some pretty rough shots of his own to Blake Griffin’s face in the first half, but, regardless, Cook was ejected and the game never really settled down again. A few minutes later, Craig Smith took exception to a fake-raking administered by Rudy Fernandez. “Old friend” Marcus Camby tried to keep him away from Fernandez, but even at a distance whatever Smith said got him tossed from the game. (Seriously, I loved Marcus Camby has much as anyone, but I wish Ralph and Mike would stop talking about what good friends he still is with all of the Clippers, you know, considering that in one stretch of the fourth-quarter he slapped Blake Griffin in the face and shoved DeAndre into the front row of the stands. Thanks ol’ pal!) Logically, the veteran team playing at home with the reputation for gritting out game should have reasserted themselves once the crowd became energized, but the chippyness seemed to spark the Clippers. With Baron at the helm leading the way, the Clippers cut the Blazer lead to 12 and then 9 and then 7. With four minutes left, the Clippers came out of a time-out with the ball, down four, but with all the momentum in the building.
Three critical turnovers cost the Clippers their chance to come all the way back.First, Eric Bledsoe had his pocket picked under the Clippers basket on an inbounds pass coming out of a time out, and then he botched a fast break while Baron was sitting at the scorer’s table waiting to enter. Baron managed to right the ship one more time, hitting a runner in the lane on his first play back in the game, and finding Rasual for three on the break after forcing a turnover.
With a minute left and the Blazers up three, the Clippers played yet a perfect defensive possession, running Brandon Roy, and stripping him of the ball after he forcing him to drive. Baron managed to redirect the loose ball to Ryan Gomes, who took it up the sideline. The Clippers had a 3 on 1, and they were a Blake Griffin slam from being down a single point… in other words, it was an unfortunate moment for Blake Griffin to suffer his worst fast-break decision-making of the season. He caught the ball in front of the hoop, stopped, slow-dribbled, finally got it to Baron (now swarmed under the basket) who scooped it back to Gomes, who was, in turn, stripped on his way to the hoop.
And that was basically it, give or take some free throws.
Baron was excellent tonight on both ends of the court. There have been so many Baron theories. He only plays well on good teams. He needs an energetic crowd to emotionally engage. The most recent one has been that the emergence of Eric Bledsoe would push Baron, providing the Clippers with an energetic alternative if Baron continued to play lackadaisically. Well, maybe so. The difference between Baron and Bledsoe tonight was night and day. Not only has Baron not looked rusty since returning, he’s looked positively exuberant, active on defense, pushing the tempo in transition and, most importantly on this team, creating easy baskets in the half court offense. (Even Baron’s inefficient-looking shooting numbers (4-12, 1-5 from beyond the arc) are misleading — three of those shots were end of shot-clock or end of quarter heaves.)
Complaining about missed free throws always feels a little cantankerous, like whining about about bad weather — but just because no one wants it rain, doesn’t mean it can’t play hell with a parade. Blake Griffin’s ability to get to the line in the second half was essential in the Clippers come back. Not only did he repeatedly give the Clippers a chance to put points on the board with the clock stopped, but, more importantly, both Aldridge and Przybilla had to spend critical stretches of the fourth quarter on the bench with 5 fouls. But Blake went only 7-16 at the line. If he converts even another two or three FTs, the game at least comes down to its final possessions.
So what did we learn on this little road trip of disaster? Well, for one thing, a not too subtle reminder that a healthy Baron should be a starting Baron. If the Clippers don’t go down 15 points in the first quarter they win this game, and they don’t go down 15 if Baron is controlling the offense from the start. The turnovers are eye catching, but Bledsoe’s biggest liability at this point in his career is an inability to create easy baskets in the half court set. Too often, Bledsoe nibbles in one direction, then spins back in another, before righting himself and beginning the play again in earnest with 12 seconds left in the shot clock. It’s understandable — he is, after all, 19 — but he lacks what my high-school theater teacher liked to call intentionality (she may have made this word up.) Making a decision during a drive is difficult — you have to have the ability to read the defense in milliseconds. As confident a penetrator as Eric Gordon has become, he still can’t consistently make a good pass when the defense collapses. When Baron is playing under control, he has the ability to let the defense show first and then react accordingly. In other words, he’s a point guard, the only complete one the Clippers have at this point. It’s ironic to say it, but the more minutes Baron can play going forward, the more consistent the Clippers will be.