The Clippers dominated in Detroit tonight, snapping a five game losing streak with a 109-88 shellacking of the Pistons. Blake Griffin was dominant again going for 42 points and 17 rebounds against a Pistons front line that never really had a chance. The Clippers had more rebounds than the Pistons, more assists, more steals, more threes, more points in the paint, and more points on the fast break. Basically – and for the first time all season – they just flat whupped a team, particularly in the second half, where the Clippers outscored the Pistons 58-42.
The Clippers needed this one in the baddest way — not only a win, but an easy win. This was, by far, the most balanced 48 minutes the Clippers have played all season. The Clippers have consistently lacked a third scorer to help out Griffin and Gordon; tonight, almost everyone who played contributed. While he still managed to give the ball away five times, Eric Bledsoe was very sharp, and looked for his own shot early on his way to 12 points on 5-7 shooting. Brian Cook scored another 12 off the bench, and continues to look increasingly mobile on defense (words I never imagined writing at the beginning of the season). Ryan Gomes was excellent. Not only did he score 18 points on 8-13 shooting, but the Clippers were an astounding +34 when he was in the game. Plus/minus isn’t always meaningful over a small sample size, but tonight it tells the story accurately. Tonight, Vinny reinserted Eric Bledsoe into the lineup, but kept Aminu on the bench. The U23+Gomes lineup absolutely dominated the opening stretches of both halves. The youth is what pushed the pace, but Gomes captained the defense, not only limiting Teyshaun Prince to difficult jumpers, but screaming out instructions to the other guys in transition. Expect to see this lineup again.
This is a critical moment in the season. Only a few weeks ago, it seems, the Clippers were the Little Engine That Couldn’t. They weren’t winning games, but it didn’t really matter — with Baron and Kaman on the bench, no one expected the U-23 team to do anything but play hard. The team’s potential seemed to rise even as the losses mounted up. Judging from the tone of message board posts on site, most Clipper fans seemed to feel that the cumulative weight of Griffin’s emergent dominance, Gordon’s scoring, and the surprising debuts of Aminu and Bledsoe far outweighed the disappointment of losses in a season without playoff expectations.
Sooner or later, that honeymoon was always going to end. Moral victories get old fast. A little success inevitably warps expectation: if we see something once, we demand to see it again. What at first seems like almost miraculous achievement quickly becomes baseline expectations. (Think about Bledsoe’s explosiveness on the break, or Aminu’s stroke from downtown.)
Still, it’s been surprising how suddenly this soured. How and why fans turn on a team is an inexact science, but somewhere in-between Baron’s return, Kaman’s second ankle sprain, the back to back one-point heart-breakers, and Donald Sterling uninspired smack talk (“You’re out of shape!” Really?), joy has left the building. The tone on the message boards has turned more vitriolic, and, as the losses have continued, there’s less left to discover. We know these guys are pretty good… now it would be nice if they won.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are often cited as the model of a young nucleus that quickly grew into one of the league’s elite teams. Their roster during the 2008-2009 debut season in OKC shares some similarities with this year’s Clippers: a handful of young stars (Westbrook and Durant), a few emerging role players (Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic), surrounded by a mostly inefficient and inconsistent cast of has-beens and never-wases (Fun Fact – the highest paid player on the team was Malik Rose.) Unlike this year’s Clippers, that Thunder team didn’t manage a fifth win until January 6th. What they did do, eventually, was turn a corner. Scotty Brooks replaced P.J. Carlisimo, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant began to find their rhythm together offensively, and the entire team committed to a defense-first mentality. Over their final 50 games, the Thunder went 20-30.
For Clippers to keep the pace with that model, the losing doesn’t need to stop… but it certainly needs to slow. A major first step is winning the games you should win – tonight’s was one of those. The Clippers were faster and stronger than the Pistons. The Pistons didn’t have a big who could keep Blake off the glass or a perimeter defender who could keep Gordon from penetrating. On defense, the Clippers’ activity basically reduced the Pistons to a steady diet of tricky jump shots. In short, the Clippers had the better talent, and, for once, they didn’t squander that advantage.
The one slightly sour note tonight was Baron Davis. It’s all been said about Baron before, but here’s what I find so frustrating about him: If you broke Baron’s game down into (let’s say) the 15 most basic facets of playing offensive basketball, like “Running the Break,” “Deep Jump Shots,” “Ball Handing” etc. Baron does each one either exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly… but seems totally incapable of differentiating. I mean, for pete’s sake, when Donald Sterling is begging you not to take the three… you know… maybe it’s time to take a look at some field goal percentage stats. And yet, he’s SO good at what he’s good at. (I know that sentence isn’t totally grammatical) He had a series of feeds to Blake Griffin tonight that college coaches should show point guards, including the prettiest bounce pass through the lane on a fast break you may have ever seen. When he’s in pass mode, his nose for the open man is superb. But he just won’t stop shooting. Someone needs to get Josh Smith on the phone and ask him what it was that finally made him give up the long ball. And he is THE WORST guy to have the ball in his hands at the end of quarters and halves — a ball handler who can’t shoot and won’t pass. Anyway. His chemistry with Blake and DeAndre is great… the more he concentrates on that, the better the whole team will be.