The Clippers raced out to an early lead, paced by a great first half from Blake and DeAndre and then Nuggets started chipping away. First it was a long J.R. Smith three, then it was Chauncey Billups’ four point play and the Nuggets brought a fifteen point lead down to 8 to close the second quarter. Then the Nuggets came out of break, the Clippers gave up five straight points on three free throws from Chauncey Billups and an easy Nene Hilario steal that lead to a fast break where Blake, again looked confused on transition defense. Considering the recent history, it would be easy to expect the Clippers to get away from Blake, start hoisting bad shots and letting their offensive missteps transfer into a paranoid and lackadaisical defense. However, that wasn’t the case tonight as the Clippers even extended their first half lead and won by thirteen.
The disturbing trend of the opponents shooting a high percentage from three continued, and the Nuggets even got within 3 within three minutes of the third quarter, but there was a spurt from Eric Bledsoe that put the Nuggets back on their heels. He started the run with a right handed floater on the right side of the lane, then he nailed a three and then went back to the rim for another deuce and the foul (although he didn’t convert). Bledsoe benefitted from the zippy Nuggets guard Ty Lawson’s absence, but his play still required the gumption to make those shots, even if the shots were more open than normal because he had the slower Chauncey Billups guarding him. It’s been what the Clippers have been missing in the recent losses to Utah and Atlanta, that resilient ability to stare down a charging foe and make a steely move. They have harnessed this ability in certain spots, like the wins against the Hornets, Spurs and Bulls, but the win over the Nuggets felt different. It wasn’t like the Clippers survived the game, but that they actually won it.
DeAndre Jordan provided a surprisingly big lift on the interior and his play, beyond the Nuggets game, begs more attention. Yes, he turned in a Camby-esque 14 point, 20 rebound, 6 block performance in a win, but even in the recent losses he’s had a positive effect. In the last 3 games, he’s had 19 blocks. Yes, that’s right, 19 blocks. He’s still swatting at some of the shots like little kid exploding harmless soap bubbles, but there are some that lead to fast breaks. It’s no coincidence that the Clippers highlight of the game (a fast break, give-and-go alley-oop between Blake and Baron) started from a DeAndre block to his teammates. Granted, it was a mistake, as he clearly out-jumped the shot and swatted it off of his forearm, but it worked. That potential of defensive awareness will vastly improve his effectiveness. What’s most crucial is that he’s learning, becoming that low usage defensive anchor that compliments his front court partner and friend Blake Griffin.
Speaking of Blake, he again had a monster game, coming close to his first 20-20 game as he racked up 22 points, 18 rebounds and 7 assists (capped by a beautiful lob thrown to DeAndre), those assists a testament to his quick ability to adapt to the competition. His second half let downs, let downs at least in comparison to his first halves, continue to beguile. Maybe it’s just the teams figuring how to deal with his energy and bring Blake down to earth, even if his 7 points and 8 rebounds in the second half are what some centers average for a game, but he needs to figure out how to maintain his effectiveness. It’s crazy to pick the nits of a player that has the potential to be historically great (I had an argument with Daily Dime Live Host Zach Harper whether Blake could has the potential to be a Top-50 all time player), but if Blake wants to improve beyond a great player on a bad team, then he’s going to have to continually address his faults. I’m not even saying that he’s resting on his laurels, obviously he’s a hard worker, but his current situation is extremely difficult. Beyond just being on a bad team, he has to deal with the consistent negative stigmas associated with the owner and the franchise. Unfair or not, there is the extra push that he’ll have to endure to overcome the trivialities of an anomalous highlight machine on a bad team.
Watching this game, I began to wonder how closely Blake’s first half dominance is related to Baron Davis’ play. In the first half, Baron already had amassed his 8 assists, but in the second? None. It potentially provides a template for the answer to Jordan Heimer’s question brought up the other day, if Baron is healthy, then why isn’t he getting big minutes? This may be the answer, that he’s not able to sustain his play in the second half and those minutes need to go to Bledsoe in order to provide Baron with whatever rest is needed for him to finish out the ball game. Maybe Baron the facilitator requires a certain equilibrium, not too much playing time before he searches for his own shot rather than serving up passes to the rest of his teammates. It may just be something Baron needs to simply focus on, but the correlation and the trend is at least worthy of addressing.
Good news is that it didn’t have an effect on Eric Gordon who played another quietly impressive game. If Blake, DeAndre, Baron and Bledsoe are taking a chunk of the highlights, it’s largely because Eric Gordon allows them to be there. I’d bet that if you asked the casual NBA fan who was the scoring leader on the Clippers, few would answer Eric Gordon. And it’s not like he doesn’t contribute to the “big” plays. In the third, when the Nuggets were still fighting, Eric drove strong to the hole for a decisive lay-up and the foul. It was stabilizing, even if it didn’t completely prevent the slide that allowed for Bledsoe’s hot streak. Instead, Gordon has become a wonder in spite of his excellence, his handle down the stretch rightly questioned even though he has displayed the propensity to take over games (see November Jazz game in Utah and the second matchup with the Kings). He clearly hasn’t finished his development, which will involve the steadying of his handle so that he’s jerky dribble penetrations doesn’t fool himself more than the defenders.
But for now, Clippers fans should enjoy the solace of the win over the Nuggets. The two games prior showed that the Clippers are not going to make constant improvements, there will be setbacks against good teams, but they are learning enough where they can continue to bounce back and show very real progress.