While I’m delighted to see the Clippers newfound brinksmanship in the last two games, neither of those games should have reached that point. In both situations, the Clippers got up to double digit leads over sub-.500 teams, only to give those leads away and win by a defensive play. The Kings game was especially nerve-wracking, as Tyreke Evans had a free throw to tie and then when it bounced out, DeMarcus Cousins almost tipped the ball in and then the ball bounded back to Tyreke and he had an open 12 footer to win the game. The shot skipped out of the hole and the Clippers won the game. But against a better team, say San Antonio or even tonight’s opponent, the Jazz, and the end result most likely won’t be so pretty.
Still, the Clippers are 9-9 in their last 18 and 5-1 in their last 6, and they play an exciting brand of basketball worthy of national attention. Just look at what John Hollinger and David Thorpe have written.
Here’s Hollinger’s thoughts on the All Star merits of two Clippers:
Blake Griffin, LA Clippers (PER 22.40)
Coaches get one pick for backup center, and I’d love to see them stretch the definition and include Griffin as that player. His YouTube dunk collection speaks for itself, but he’s done a lot of the nuts and bolts of making an All-Star team too, by averaging 21.2 points, 12.5 boards and shooting 51.9 percent.
Like the other players here, Griffin has a major negative on the front of his jersey. The Paper Clips are just 10-22 in a conference that could have 11 teams finish at .500 or better. Will the coaches really plumb the depths of the standings this far down?
He faces another challenge known as “Kevin Love.” One might imagine the coaches reaching for one exceptional player at the bottom of the standings — but two? Given recent history, that seems highly unlikely. Yet on pure merit, Griffin probably belongs.
Eric Gordon, LA Clippers (PER 21.19)
Gordon has no chance whatsoever because of Griffin’s candidacy — it’s almost inconceivable that coaches will write two names from the 10-22 Clippers on their ballots when submitting just one name from such a squad is a rare feat in itself. Nonetheless, I wanted to note his impressive start to the season, one that has him tied for 11th in the West in EWA.
Now there is David Thorpe doing a simple breakdown of the Clipper rookies:
Blake Griffin, Clippers
Something good: Oh my, where do we begin? Monster dunks, beastly attitude, competitive spirit, willing and able to put his team on his back for long stretches of games — he’s been the best rookie we’ve seen since this report started three years ago. It’s hard for a No. 1 pick to exceed expectations, but he has done so without question.
Something bad: There’s not much to choose from here, but his biggest weakness is the most obvious one. He’s making just 59 percent of his free throws, a problem when he is so good at getting fouled. With a team on the upswing, this becomes even more of an issue, as the Clippers are playing so many games to the wire. Check this out: The Clippers are 7-7 in December, and in their seven losses, Griffin missed enough free throws to either tie or win three games. How would a 10-4 December record heading into the last game of the year look to Clipper Nation? It makes a world of difference when your best player is also money from the line.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Clippers
Something good: I lobbied through Twitter and this report all spring and summer about how I thought Aminu was better suited to be a power forward, at least early in his career. While I think it’s still a worthwhile argument, there is no debate over his abilities as a shooter, which are better than I expected. Yes, now he’s nowhere near the torrid levels of the first five weeks, when he made 20 of his 37 attempts from Halloween through November. But still, he’s at a respectable 34.6 percent (9 of 26) this month. He’s made 46 percent of his 3s this season with a healthy number of attempts, suggesting that this is no fluke. Aminu is a shooter.
Something bad: Similar to Johnson, Aminu has made more 3s than free throws. But Aminu is taller and longer than Johnson and he has the great hands all special rebounders have. To be a great rebounder, one has to loiter around the rim. And by doing just that, Aminu would earn a lot more free throws, or more paint shots. Both would help him be more productive. There’s nothing wrong about being a good deep shooter, but the absence of productivity in other facets of the game means the Clippers took a talented player with huge upside at No. 8 in the draft and turned him into a spot 3-point shooter. The Spurs and Nuggets each got one of those kinds of guys (Gary Neal and Gary Forbes) without wasting a draft pick and for millions of dollars less.
Eric Bledsoe, Clippers
Something good: Sure, the Clippers knew they were getting a stud of an athlete when they drafted Bledsoe, but could they have expected him to play with such poise, as a pass-first point guard, after just one year of playing off the ball in college? I think not, but that’s what Bledsoe is giving them. Next to Fields, he’s probably the steal of the draft and certainly the most surprising first-round pick. He’s ever dangerous as an athlete, but his willingness to pass and his sense of where and how to make the pass seem more appropriate for a veteran player. His feel for the game is much better than he was given credit for. As he learns the pick-and-roll game, which can take years to master, he’s going to end up being a dynamic point guard.
Something bad: As expected at the pace of the NBA game, a player trying to set up his teammates is going to turn the ball over. A lot. Bledsoe is getting better at reading the first line of defense, though it’s not something he’s good at yet, but beyond that is way beyond him. NBA players don’t move around as much as college kids do, but they think 10 times as fast, and that’s why Bledsoe gets into as much trouble as he does. His legs get him into spots that his mind has not processed yet. He’s had three or more turnovers in 18 games, though I do see an improvement this month.
Is it perfect? No, but this team is definitely set up well for the future. They have three of the best rookies, with Bledsoe being a steal of the draft, and Blake playing at an All Star level along with third year guard Eric Gordon. There is more reason for optimism in Clipper Nation than ever before.
Keys to the Jazz game:
- Paul Millsap v. Blake Griffin. Millsap has been doing an admirable job supplanting Carlos Boozer by averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds a game. But he’ll have his hands full with Blake tonight. I’m interested to see how the Jazz play Blake as there have been moments when Blake has struggled against double teams (Houston) and against quicker small forward types like Artest and Grant Hill. In a chicken and the egg predicament, it appears that countering Blake’s speed is more important than strength, and Millsap is pretty quick and strong. I still think that Blake gets double double streak extending numbers, but if Millsap can slow Blake down at all, the Jazz could eke out a win.
-Turnovers. I like that Aminu has been getting minutes again, and his play is one of the reasons the Clippers are winning, but he’s part of the turnover problem. In the Kings game, the Clippers turned the ball over 19 times to the Kings 9. This pattern can’t continue against better teams if the Clips have any hopes of extending their winning ways.
- Disciplined defense. One of the reasons that the Clippers have struggled against the Jazz, has been due to lapses defending the Jazz’s efficient flex offense. Going into the game, the Clippers are holding opponents to 42 percent shooting in December, second in the league, after giving up a disasterous 48 percent in November. They’ll have play smart to keep up that trend against an efficient Deron Williams-led Jazz offense.
Brian Cook – Sprained Right Ankle, out
Chris Kaman – Sprained Left Ankle, out
Craig Smith – Herniated Disk, doubtful
Andrei Kirilenko – Lower back strain, doubtful