Before the season started, there was an unheralded optimism in Clipper Nation. Dunleavy gone, Blake in, a great draft class, Kaman coming off an All Star year, and Eric Gordon the Clippers’ gold medalist all compiled to form the giddiest fan base the Clippers have ever had. This was more than just an exciting nucleus, it was a foundation. Optimism was so widespread that some national pundits even picked the Clippers as dark horse candidates to make the playoffs. NBA fans watched highlight reel dunks from Blake throughout preseason and wondered just how far he could take the Clippers. Now, the Clippers finally playing up to those expectations.
Winners of 4 of their last 5 games, the Clippers have begun to settle in, learn each teammates nuances and play as a unit, not just a collection of talented basketball players. They’re watching each other’s backs as much as they are looking to score on their own, a trait well-shown in Blake Griffin. But it’s more than just that.
The Clippers dominate the glass, they’re second in the league in rebound rate. And that’s without Kaman playing the majority of the season. It stems from Blake, but DeAndre improved immensely and the rebounding upgrade at small forward (Gomes and Aminu) should not be overlooked.
Not only that, but after enduring regular scorchings, the Clippers have brought down opponents’ field goal percentage. Finally, they are better than league average, if only by a tenth of a percentage (45.4 percent). Sure they still allow opponents to shoot 39.3 percent from three point range, but that’s down 3 percentage points as well.
If there is any measure to contrast the team, it’s the matchup with the Sacramento Kings. While DeMarcus Cousins has been playing better of late, their wins still seem sporadic and lucky, not necessarily caused by anything the Kings are doing, more like what the opponents stumble upon. Part of it is all the lingering injuries to their star guard Tyreke Evans, but it’s more about the unity of the team. The Clippers also have had growing pains, but unlike the Kings, they appear to learn from them, which may be the reason that the Clippers have faired so well against them this year. They’ve won twice, handily, in the regular season as well a 42 point beatdown in the preseason.
Another win tonight would not be so unfathomable, and would further the Clippers development. The win would be their third in a row on the road making the Clips a respectable 9-9 in their last 18 games, as well as 5-1 in their last six. Still the Kings can be a handful, and playing on the road has been very difficult for the Clippers as they’re only 2-11 when traveling.
Keys to the Game:
– DeMarcus Cousins v. Blake Griffin. While DeMarcus Cousins averages 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds on the season, he’s been trending upwards. In the last two weeks, he has averaged 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds. We’re spoiled with Blake so those don’t seem particularly impressive to Clippers fans, but DeMarcus has begun to evolve. What I like about him is that, even though he does have his issues, one that included an argument with Head Coach Paul Westphal, he has apologized, showing potential to outgrow his immaturity. On the court, Cousins has learned to stay out of foul trouble, a big reason that he wasn’t putting up great stats in the beginning of the year. He’s surprisingly nimble and the Clippers will have their hands full with Cousins on the interior. On the flip side, every team has trouble containing Blake. He just keeps getting better. I have seen improved defense and evidence of range (he has nailed some three pointers recently), but what I like most, is how infectious his style of play is. It’s not that he’s unselfish, you can see he wants every rebound, but it’s more of a simplistic and even viewpoint. If you’re on Blake’s team, you’re on his team. End of discussion. And I like how that attitude has been spreading to the rest of the players.
– Eric Gordon v. Tyreke Evans. I waffle a lot on how much I like Tyreke’s game. Does he dominate the ball too much? Maybe. Should he rest his injuries in a season like this? Probably. But I like how single minded and aggressive he is. At his best he gets some of the easiest looks at the rim, collapsing defenses and handing out easy opportunities for his teammates. Although at his worst, he stagnates the offense, takes too difficult of shots and knocks the team out of rhythm. With Eric Gordon on him, it could be a long night, but don’t think that Tyreke won’t dish out some pain of his own.
Brian Cook, Chris Kaman and Craig Smith are all out for the game.
Chat Note: I’ll be at ESPN’s Daily Dime Live Chatting for the first half of the game.