Happy New Year’s Clippers Fans. And welcome to more of the same.
“I look forward to New Year’s,” Mark Twain once quipped. “It gives us a new start on old habits.” Twain (who surely, given the historical opportunity, would have been a Clips diehard) could have been referring to this afternoon’s frustrating 107-98 loss to the Hawks. The calendar may have flipped, but this was deja vu all over again.
Here’s a fairly unimaginative list of resolutions the Clippers probably made going into 2011:
1. Resolved: Be more consistent from the line.
Broken. The Clippers shot 20-29 from the charity stripe, including misses on both their technicals.
2. Resolved: Limit turnovers.
Broken. It wasn’t just that the Clippers had 17 turnovers (which is high, but not completely ridiculous), it was that there were so many silly ones. By my unofficial tally, there were four 3-second violations, three foot-on-the-baselines, two first-step traveling violations and one Eric Bledsoe bounce pass to a brunette in the third row. And, of course, the obligatory turnover where Eric Gordon-loses-the-handle-while-penetrating-with-the-game-on-the-line. (Question: Gordon has been unbelievable this season, but can you really call someone the team “closer” when they can’t hold onto the ball in clutch time?)
3. Resolved: No more second half let downs.
Broken. The Hawks are one of the few teams that may be as athletically gifted as the Clippers, but in the first half the home team had the fresher legs. Everything was working for Clippers, who built a 16-point lead midway through the second. DeAndre Jordan was dominant on the defensive end, sparking easy baskets with 8 rebounds and 5 blocks in the first half, and frustrating Josh Smith into a miserable 0-8 from the field. Baron was penetrating at will and finding Blake for his obligatory first quarter slams. Aminu and Bledsoe provided energy off the bench. Yes, Eric Gordon picked up two quick fouls and had to sit after playing only three minutes, but Randy Foye more than made up for it with his strongest stretch of play this season. The team defense was excellent and aggressive, forcing the Hawks into deep mid-range jumpers, and turning long rebounds into fast breaks.
And then the second half came. I guess it wasn’t realistic to expect the Hawks to shoot 32% for an entire game. They just have too much talent. But the Clippers have a hard time winning when they don’t generate their fair share of missed shots, which allow them to get out in transition and find easy baskets. Once Joe Johnson, Joe Smith, and Jamal Crawford began to find their range, the Clippers were forced into a slower, half-court offense that struggled to create open looks. The lead was down to 4 points by the end of the third quarter, and gone completely by the time Vinny brought Baron back midway through the fourth. What struck me was how quickly the Clippers seemed to give up on the defensive concepts that worked so well in the first half. Once Crawford in particular started to find his range the Clippers started playing too aggressively on the perimeter, and the result was a parade of Hawk free throws. Giving up freebies can be deadly for any team, but it’s particularly toxic for the Clippers. Their offense (especially on nights when Eric Gordon can’t shoot) relies on flow, beating guys down the court, and an opponent free throw is the anti-fast break since it allows them to set up their defense and eliminates any chance of losing track of Blake or DeAndre on their way upcourt.
A great boxer doesn’t stop punching just because his opponent is falling – he gest in another couple licks on the way down, to really ensure there’s no getting back up. Until the Clippers learn to throw those final punches, the ones that push a 15 point lead to 22 in the second quarter, they will continue to struggle finishing wins against quality opposition.
And you know what? The Clippers might have failed in all of their resolutions and still won this game if Eric Gordon had anything more than his worst game of the season. He was flat out terrible, worse, in fact, than his fairly ugly boxscore, which shows him shooting 3-14 and 0-5 from downtown. Plus/minus isn’t always the best measure of a player, especially for a single game, but Eric Gordon was absolutely a -22 today. One thing I’ve always admired about EJ is that he usually doesn’t let a bad shooting day affect his defense, but tonight it seemed to. He was visibly frustrated trying to guard the 6’8 Joe Johnson, and his frustration led to some basic metal lapses. He left Ryan Gomes alone with Josh Smith several times when he was the obvious help man, and, in one of the game’s key moments, fouled Jamal Crawford on a shot from about 5 feet behind the arc. I understand that Gordon is the Clippers most potent offensive weapon, but much of the third quarter was spent trying to get him going on a night when the Clippers had plenty of hot hands. He wasn’t just off, he was way off, and a few more minutes of Randy Foye in the second half might have served the team better than trying to get Gordon to find a shot that clearly wasn’t there today.
Anyway, the Clippers will try again Wednesday against the Nuggets. Here are some bullet points from the notes I made during the first half when I thought I might be writing about a Clipper win.
- Accepted wisdom is a powerfully difficult thing to alter. We’ve been hoping for three years that DeAndre Jordon might one day mature enough to be a “solid NBA backup center.” DeAndre had another 6 blocks tonight to go with 12 rebounds. He alters more shots than any other center I’ve seen this season other than Dwight Howard, and he gets down the court on fast breaks nearly as fast as Blake does. He’s an excellent front court compliment to Blake Griffin, because he can affect the game without needing any shots. If the Clippers aren’t willing to offer him more than a “solid backup” contract this summer, it’s a near guarantee that DeAndre will be in a different uniform after the lock out.
- We all know what Eric Bledsoe has done this season, but it might be time to return some of Randy Foye’s minutes to Randy Foye. A healthy Foye suddenly gives the Clippers some real back-court depth, with four guys who can both shoot and handle the ball.
- I don’t want to go all Mike Smith on you, but watching Blake improve game by game is a pleasure. The Hawks didn’t just double team Blake nearly every time he caught the ball, they threw a variety of looks at him, sometimes sending another big man through the paint from the weak side, other times running at him with a perimeter player. Blake’s ability to read the double-team and make the right decision is uncanny for someone in his rookie season. His full arsenal was on display, particularly in the first half, where he scored with equal ease from the post, in transition, and off his mid-range jumper. That’s 21 consecutive double-doubles for Blake now, and his 10th (!) straight game with at least 20 points. If neither of those streaks gets him into the All-Star game, it’s a shanda.
- Is Baron still “playing his way into shape?” If not, then it’s hard to fathom why he only played 29 minutes tonight, and not more like 36 or 38. The offense, particularly in the half court, functions so much better with Baron at the helm – why is he only playing the last three minutes of the second quarter?
- Rasual Butler: DNP, CD