I keep going back to that Blake Griffin locker room interview after the Miami game. “Teams can’t come in here and punk us,” he said. “Not by a long shot.” Sadly, I erased the game, and I’m worried I don’t have the quote exactly right – except for “punked.” I know he said “punked.” Blake is usually as reticent in his interviews as the next pro athlete, but punked caught my ear. He could have said “Good teams compete at home,” or “We always expect to win.” “Punked” connoted an acknowledgement how the rest of the league often regards the Clippers – as an automatic victory, half a day off… a team you could punk.
Maybe you think I’m reading too much into some extemporaneous verbiage, but if I know anything from my lifetime of watching the Clippers I know that 99 times out of 100 this game ends with the Clippers getting punked. With seven minutes left in the fourth quarter the Lakers were only up seven, but it felt like more. A combination of foul trouble and the Lakers’ length kept Blake Griffin out of rhythm all night, making just three of his first fourteen shots. Eric Gordon was hot, but the rest of the team was ice cold from the feel. Clipper victories this season have been high energy, punctuated by dunks and breakaways – today’s game was ugly and slow, the kind of game tailor made for the Lakers to grind out triangle by (crushingly boring) triangle. When Kobe checked back into the game Milph said what we were all thinking: “Looks like Phil Jackson wants to put this one away.”
Except, that’s not the way it went. Instead three things happened:
1. Open 3s.
Usually when teams have turned up the pressure defensively on the Clippers late in games the result has been a bevy of turnovers and forced shots. With the game on the line today, the Clippers refused to settle for a bad shot. Randy Foye and Eric Gordon combined for four straight makes from 3 in a course of four minutes. Most impressively, all four came on wide-open looks late in the shot clock. Even with ten and five seconds left to shoot, the Clippers kept running their offense, keeping the ball flying around the perimeter instead of forcing up a shot. Part of the credit has to go to Vinny. His choice to use a three guard line-up down the stretch was a risk against the Lakers’ size, but it paid huge dividends.
2. Blake Griffin: Red Shirt Rookie.
I take no credit here – the phrase is Michael Eaves’. But Blake Griffin is just not a “rookie,” at least not like any other rookie I’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s part of what makes a Superduperstar a Superduperstar – sure they get better, but they emerge in some ways fully formed. Blake Griffin doesn’t talk to refs like a rookie. He doesn’t interview like a rookie. Those stare downs after dunks? Definitely not like a rookie. Through three quarters today, Blake Griffin looked positively human. Forced to sit for most of the first half, the Lakers used their length to keep him far from the basket all night. Bad games spiral on a rookie. Frustrated rookies commit stupid fouls, or they force the action and end up turning the ball over. Superduperstars, on the other hand, never stop thinking they can take over a game. Held in check all game, Blake sandwiched three forceful baskets around Gordon and Foye’s shots, hit two free throws, and wrested a key rebound out of the hands of Andruw Bynum. Milph already had the Blake empathy on full blast going into the fourth, reminding Clips fans that even Blake Griffin was bound to look like a rookie once in a while. Maybe not.
The decisive sequence came with under three minutes. Up 3, the Clippers were slow to bring the ball upcourt after Blake landed awkwardly after a Lakers make. By the time Baron realized Blake was fine (it seemed like maybe he thought Vinny was going to call a time out) the shot clock was under ten. It was one of the classic Clipper “lost possessions” we see so often down the stretch, and it ended – as they usually do – with Baron forced to take a low percentage, off balance shot as the clock expired. Except he made it. Three seconds later Eric Gordon stripped Kobe at mid-court, and drove in for a dunk that put the Clippers up by 7. The Lakers never seriously threatened again.
With 5.9 seconds remaining, and the Clippers shooting free throws with the game already in hand, Blake Griffin boxed out hard against Lamar Odom. Lamar responded by grabbing Blake’s jersey and yanking him out of bounds, where a ref quickly tried to get between the two jawing big men. That streak you see on the overhead shot? That’s Baron Davis sprinting in from mid-court to shove Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom away from his teammate. A common knock on Baron is that he’s “theatrical,” dramatic in the sense of false. But if Baron Davis was faking his anger and his passion, that man deserves a Golden Globe. (Yes, I am currently watching the Golden Globes.) He yelled at Lamar under the basket. He yelled at Lamar from the Clipper bench. And he was still animated on his way down the tunnel to the locker room after he was ejected. (Lamar, Blake, and Ron Artest were also ejected, but you can expect Artest and Blake not to be fined – replay makes it clear neither one did anything aggressive).
In the locker room interview later Baron said, “It is what it is man, just a lot of lollygagging and playing around. They take cheap shots at Blake. They’ve been doing it all year. And it’s just not fair.” Translation: You can’t come in here and punk the Clippers. Not anymore.
- Ryan Gomes continues to frustrate. Maybe once a week he fully believes in his jump shot, the rest of the time his reluctance to shoot – even the open corner three – is obvious. Mike Smith is fond of saying that Gomes “limits his negative plays.” That’s starting to sound like code.
- Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe both played well again in limited minutes. One of the underrated aspects of this hot streak has been their increasing steadiness. Early in the season Aminu and Bledsoe were turnover machines, but they seem to have embraced their role as the “energy unit” and have been particularly good at changing the pace during flagging third quarters.
- “It got a little hostile at the end.” – Master of Understatement, Eric Gordon. Um, yes it did Eric. Gordon, by the way, is clearly more confident in his shot now than he has been at any point in the season. Early on, Gordon was doing most of his damage going to the hole. Then, it was wide open threes. The last few weeks though, he looks more like Ray Allen, curling off baseline screens for catch and shoot rhythm plays. His stroke just looks so incredibly pure right now, it’s a surprise when the shot doesn’t go. This guy is quietest All-Star in the NBA.
- Does Dain Blanton ever stop smiling? I like when he asked Matt Kemp what advice he’d give a struggling Blake Griffin, “athlete to athlete.” Hehe.
- Two technical FTs today: 0-2. Does anyone keep a stat for just this? I swear we miss half of our techs.
- A for effort Ike Diogu. The classic “it might not show in the box score but” game. Ike was completely overmatched by the size and athleticism of the Lakers’ big men, but he somehow scrapped his way to 11 key rebounds, including 6 huge offensive boards. If Ike doesn’t give the Clippers all those second chances, the Lakers win the game.