Perhaps understanding the excitement they have garnered across the NBA, the Clippers did their part to entertain the local fans in the state’s capitol on the way to a 100-99 victory over the Kings. During the start of the season, they managed to be fun to watch despite the near inevitability of defeat, but things have certainly changed since their tough start. And while they have been much more successful of late, they are still improving in many areas. Having won five of six games, the theme recently has been the Clippers outplaying opponents but not being able to sustain big leads. Even when they look like the better team, they have struggled to show consistent effort on defense and limit their own turnovers. On Sunday, the Clips allowed the Suns to come back from an 18-point deficit to tie the game before they eventually prevailed. Against Sacramento, it was Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin leading the way, but continuous lapses of effort on Kings shooters, combined with 19 Clipper turnovers, left the outcome undetermined until the final seconds.
With 5.1 seconds left, and the Kings down three, it looked like Tyreke Evans was going to have to make a contested three-pointer to tie the game and send it to overtime. Instead, with a foul to give, Ryan Gomes committed one at the top of the key. Evans, as you can do in the NBA, took another dribble and threw up a shot, giving the refs reason to call it a shooting foul and send him to the line for three free throws. After making the first two, he missed the third and, two frantic tips later, the Clippers emerged with a victory, their first at Arco Arena since December 7, 2007. It wasn’t “pretty,” but as Vinny Del Negro said, “We were fortunate at the end, but we’ll take it. We’re finding ways to win. You’ve got to learn how to win games like that in this league.”
Winning is better than the alternative, regardless of opponent, and it should be noted that the Clippers are doing it far more frequently these days. After starting the season 1-13, they have played .500 basketball (9-9). They have improved their efficiency on both ends of the floor (23rd in offensive and 20th in defensive) after starting the year at or near the bottom in each. But most importantly, have begun to form an identity by playing to their strengths. Primary among those strengths is rebounding. The Clippers who rank 2nd in the league in total rebound rate, outrebounded the Kings, 48-34, tonight, a huge key to the win. Obviously Griffin is a big part of this (14 boards to go with his 24 points), but the dominance on the glass has been a team effort. Al-Farouq Aminu, last year’s leading rebounder in the ACC, has proven to have a nose for the ball, despite shifting to the small forward from power forward, which he played primarily in college. On this night, he pulls down eight rebounds while chipping in 11 points, and showing the potential to be a viable third option to Gordon and Griffin. The newest Clipper, Ike Diogu, also came up huge in the win, battling hard, especially in the second half, for six big boards to go with eight points. And perhaps the most impressive number of all – one that had many Clipper fans (including the leader of this blog) concerned – was the starting backcourt of Gordon (six) and Baron Davis (five) combining for 11 rebounds to go with their 13 assists. It was, indeed, a team effort on the glass, and they needed every last one of them to compensate for their turnover issues, which assistant coach, Dean Demopolous, called, “insanity.”
Without a doubt, the star of the game was Gordon, who is playing like we expected he would now that he is back to draining threes like he has his whole career. He tied his career high with six makes on seven attempts, on his way to 31 points on 12 of 19 from the floor. He continues to amaze with his silky smooth touch, and ability to adapt his offensive game to the defense. On a night where he only got to the free throw line once, Gordon went to his old bread and butter to carry the team from deep. He has become so difficult to guard, in large part, because his approach, after the game saying he’s, “just letting it come to me. Teams sometimes try to go under a screen under me so I won’t be able to get to the basket so I gotta knock down the outside shot.” He did have three turnovers, including a costly one down the stretch where he just dribbled out of bounds, but his performance was a key for the team’s strong half court execution.
Griffin had another great game, tying Michael Cage for the franchise record with 19 consecutive double-doubles. He continued to show the diversity of his game, with a three-pointer and a couple of mid range jumpers to go with his usual paint dominance. He, along with Diogu and DeAndre Jordan, helped the Clippers to a 50-26 advantage in points in the paint. The Clips continue to show good spacing in their half court sets, and guys like Aminu, Baron, Foye, Diagu and Gomes are reaping the benefits of the attention defenses have to pay to Gordon and Griffin.
With a five-game homestand coming up against quality teams like Utah, Atlanta and Miami, the Clippers will have to tighten up their defensive rotations and limit turnovers if they hope to continue their winning ways. Against the Kings, they really didn’t commit to defending shooters like Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi until it was almost too late, but they did turn in some pretty strong defensive possessions down the stretch that helped secure the win. Despite the best efforts of Evans (32 points) and his shooters, as well as the Clippers’ issues with protecting the ball, the Clippers appear to have become a team that can win close games. It is a step, with the next one being the ability to prevent games that shouldn’t be close from getting there.