The Clippers fail to extend their season high three game winning streak, and head into the Christmas break after losing a highly entertaining back and forth game to Rockets, 97-92. The Rockets led the entire game, and while the Clippers managed to cut that lead to a single point on several occasions, they could never find the basket to get them over the hump. It was another close, winnable game, but (refreshingly) lacked the soul-crushing qualities we’ve suffered through in so many of this season’s losses. The Clippers didn’t miss 100 free throws, or turn the ball over thirty times — they simply came up a little short in a wild game. (I’ll keep this recap concise and bullet-pointy, partly because I’m saving all my secondary thoughts for a special clipperblog Festivus post, but mostly because my DVR decided I didn’t really need to see the first 18 minutes of the second half.)
- First Quarter Sizzle Like the Suns and the Magic last month, the Rockets almost shot the Clippers out of the Staples Center in the first six minutes of the game, building a 16 point lead midway through the first. The Clips weren’t playing all that poorly, the Rockets just couldn’t miss. Several times Kevin Martin spoiled 23 seconds of solid Clipper defensive by hitting impossible jumpers at the buzzer. (Plus, Luis Scola is the most automatic midrange jump shooter we’ve seen all year. Does that guy ever miss when he’s open?) But, as we’ve seen so often this year, the Vinny Del Negro Clippers are not quitters. (As my friend Manny emailed me after the game, “Every time my Clipper Fan Quit-O-Meter went off, they got back into it) They came roaring back, cutting the lead to one point by the end of the quarter on a run that included five (!) monster jams, three from DeAndre Jordan and two from Blake Griffin. It was one of the most entertaining quarters of the season, not just in a Clipper game — in any NBA game. If you want to know why the Clippers are destined to be a League Pass favorite over the next few years throw the last six minutes of this quarter on a loop and yell “Boom Shakalaka!” every 45 seconds.
- Gordon and Griffin sit The Rockets rebuilt a 13 point lead in a second quarter most notable for who wasn’t on the floor. Eric Gordon sat the entire quarter, and Blake only played three minutes after picking up his second foul. Certainly, it was frustrating watching the Rockets regain control of the game with our two stars on the bench, but before you start screaming Dunleavy Redux, consider the circumstances. With Brian Cook, Chris Kaman, and Craig Smith all out with injuries, the Clippers were short-handed last night. Losing Smith and Cook seriously hampers the productivity of the second unit. Vinny may have felt he couldn’t use his usual rotations in the second half and win, so he sat G+G the entire second quarter, and then played both of them every minute of the second half. And while it was painful watching a lineup of Baron, Foye, Butler, Collins, and Diagu try to generate offense in the second quarter, it’s hard to argue too much with the strategy considering the game was there to be won in the final minutes. (Ike Diagu, by the way, looks like another nice little pick-up by Neil Olshey. He’s a methodical, and careful player, the proverbial guy who “plays within himself.” He understands his game and he executes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he steals Jarron Collins’ roster spot.)
- That Guy A constant debate in ClipperNation these days is whether this team has “that guy” – the guy you depend on to hit big shots at the end of the game. It’s usually the first point that comes up when Clipper fans weigh the pros and cons of trading for Carmelo or another bonafide All-Star scorer. For most of the season, Eric Gordon has been the primary option late, but his ball handling is sketchy, and he has a concerning habit of bad turnovers in big spots. Tonight, Blake Griffin was the man in a way we haven’t seen before. With the Clippers down ten inside four minutes, Blake led one last furious charge, hitting shots from all over the court, including a wide open three pointer from the top of the key that appeared to be a drawn up play coming out of a time out. You read that right. It wasn’t a busted play. Blake for three was one of the options…and he hit it. I don’t expect to see a lot of Blake Griffin threes moving forward, but Blake has shown a new level of confidence in his face up jumper the past week. Most thought it would take years for Blake to develop that jump shot. The fact that he’s already honing in on it is plain scary. The question has to be asked — Is Blake Griffin magic, and what should we do about it if he is?
- Clipper D – All the things you can do to take advantage of a young, inexperienced team, the Rockets do. They move the ball. They hit threes at an alarming rate. They get to the line constantly. And I think a month ago, they would have blown the Baby Clips out of the water. Remember those first handful of games with the U-23 team? Rotations that didn’t rotate, a transition defense that didn’t transition, blown switches that left shooters wide open — well, tonight’s Clippers wouldn’t recognize those guys. The Clippers held the Rockets to 65 points on sub 40% shooting over the final three periods. This team is built to create offense off of defense — Blake, DeAndre, Bledsoe, Baron, and EJ all thrive in transition. The effort has been there all season, but we’re just beginning to see how effective this D can be when it’s not hampered by foolish fouls and rookie mistakes.
- DeAndre – Since Kaman was reinjured, DeAndre Jordan has played the best stretch of basketball of his NBA career. Tonight he was excellent again, grabbing 13 rebounds to go with 14 points (including four straight stone cold free throws with the game still in the balance in the fourth). More and more, DeAndre looks like the perfect center for this team. His limited offensive game is a perfect fit with Blake — he stays out of the way and cleans up the mess. Personally, I’m a Kaman guy, but with Blake quickly developing a game that extends his range further and further from the basket, I’m not sure how comfortably he and Kaman can share limited post space. Do the Clippers step up and pay DeAndre this summer? If they don’t, someone will. Athletic 7-footers are, you know, kinda in demand.