Today’s game against the Lakers drags up memories of the last LA grudge match, a game the Clippers should have won but didn’t. It’s a slightly easier pill to swallow now, since the Clippers have won 8 of their last 12, including wins over the Nuggets and the Heat, but that Laker game is still a thorn in the side of the Clippers. At the time the Clippers had already started to roll, they had won 4 of their last 8, including big time wins against the Hornets and the Spurs. A win over the Lakers would have been that extra confidence boost that might have propelled the Clippers on to a better record than they currently own.
But that was not the case, the Clips suffered from the speed-wobbles at the end of the game, Eric Gordon gave up costly turnovers and Eric Bledsoe let the vastly less athletic Derek Fisher drive to the rim for the game winning shot.
The Clips lost the next three games after that, another gruesomely close defeat at the hands of the Griz, then a loss to Orlando before the ever so depressing collapse on the road against the 76ers. It seemed like the Clippers took that loss to the Lakers hard, and that it took them some time to emotionally recover from that game, but when they did, the Clips were even stronger than before. They’ve now won 8 of the last 12 and for the first time in a long time, fans expect the Clippers to win. Just that simple expectation is so fundamentally altering for the Clippers.
Over on the other LA team’s TrueHoop blog, Andrew Kamenetzky spoke to to Clipper VP of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey about the progress of the Clipper team.
Olshey, on what’s changed over the last 12 games:
“Really, more than anything, it took a while to learn how to win. We were in a lot of games during those first 14 games. I think we lost five or six games by one point. And a little bit of it, we were playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win. You gotta remember, the veteran core we had [experienced] four losing seasons in a row prior to Vinny [Del Negro] coming in. So losing is a habit and it’s one we needed to break.
“I think the team meeting Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin called after that Philadelphia loss after we had a double-digit lead kind of raised the bar in terms of how guys are going to deal with each other on the court. We’ve got a very tight-knit group socially, but they kind of needed to be workers on the floor. And that’s what’s happened. I think Vinny’s done a great job of staying optimistic, being positive, continuing to work.
“The amazing thing is the atmosphere never changed. We were 1-13 and you would have walked in and thought we were 13-1. That was what was important, the team was still competing. They were working. Guys were improving and we needed something to turn it around.”
Olshey, on team’s leadership dynamic:
“Eric and Blake are the cornerstones of the franchise. From a leadership standpoint, now that Baron is back and healthy and actually Baron again, Baron’s the leader because we [were] this great body, with no head. Baron came back and he’s kind of the brain of our team. He’s the guy that makes sure the guys get the ball in the right spots. I’ve said this before, all those highlight reel dunks by Blake and DeAndre, there’s somebody throwing him the ball to them. He and Eric [Gordon] have found a way to play together. They had issues with that last year because they both like to have the ball, but they’ve done a really good job of playing in pairs a little bit and complementing one another.
The leadership, from a building block for the future, it’s Blake and Eric, and I think, night in and night out, being ready to go, Baron has a major role in that.”
On Griffin’s effect rejuvenating Davis:
“This is like a quarterback having a big-time wide receiver. The way that Baron likes to play, Blake complements that. I thought Baron did a great job playing with Chris Kaman. Helped him become an All-Star. He averaged 19 a game. But that was kind of pick-and-pop situations. Baron really likes to get in the lane, throw lobs, be exciting … Baron has really bought into the fact that Blake and Eric are the future and he needed to find a way to play with them, as opposed to the reverse.”
Olshey, on the team’s unsung hero:
“I think the unsung hero is Vinny Del Negro. I really do. I think that Vinny came into a situation where we had lost for four years. Based on injuries, at one point, he had a starting lineup younger than half the ACC. He knew the organization wanted him to play younger guys. He was open to that, even though most coaches trend towards playing veterans. He’s the one that absorbed the losses and a lot of the heat at 1-13, and now that you’ve got Baron back and you’ve got the veterans playing again, you can see the contributions that a Farouq [Aminu] and an Eric Bledsoe are able to make in a big-time game in a high-level environment. And I don’t think they would have done that if Vinny had just done that back in November when things were going poorly.”
(Here’s the full podcast.)
What I like about the Clippers whole organizational attitude is that they aren’t ignoring their past deficiencies, nor are they harping on it. In the interview, Olshey does a very nice job of removing the emotionality and making the answers clearer to see. The past team had been used to losing? Then let’s break that habit. It’s simple and clear-headed and more easily allows for growth, which finally can be seen on the court, even if it’s only in a small sample size.
(additional reading: Kaman’s trade prospects on ESPN’s Weekend Dime)
Keys to the Game:
– Turnovers. Remember that last game against the Lakers? The Clippers had the lead (up 84-79 with 1:14 left), with the win in their sights and committed multiple turnovers to lose the game, both times Ron Artest capitalized on a Eric Gordon mistake and the Lakers seized each opportunity. It’s haunted the Clippers all season, they are young and new to each other, but if there is anything that the Heat game shows, it’s that the Clippers can overcome that weakness. They only had 10 turnovers that game, and if they care for the ball like they did then, the Lakers will have a much harder time beating the Clippers.
– Battle of the Big Men. Last game, the Clippers didn’t have to see Andrew Bynum trolling the paint, looking for shots to block, which forced Pau Gasol to play center. But with Bynum in, Gasol will now be Griffin’s man. Blake will have to play much better man on man defense today, because Gasol is sneakier than Odom. Odom generally works best off the dribble, and you know he’s going to the left on his drives. But Gasol works with his back to the basket, where Blake won’t be able to see Gasol’s eyes and he finishes adeptly with either his right or left hand. Not to mention how remarkable of a passer that Pau is. On the other end, Pau is more capable of defending Blake because of his smarts and his length. While Blake is stronger, Pau plays intelligently. (And when Pau can’t handle Blake’s muscle, look for the Lakers to throw Ron Artest back on Blake, the Lakers had the most success with that.) At the Center spot, DeAndre needs to use his mobility against the slower Bynum, running down the floor for dunks and alley-oops will be the way to test the Lakers’ big man. What will be interesting is to watch how DeAndre plays on and off of Bynum. DeAndre loves those help-side blocks, but with Bynum there will he stay more with Lakers’ big?
– Baron Davis. He only played sparingly in the last matchup against the Lakers and the way he’s playing now, he could be the difference. I doubt that Baron would have given up the same game winning layup to Derek Fisher. (That’s not an indictment on Eric Bledsoe, he just has so many nuances to learn.) Baron has been playing much better of late, evolving into a facilitator in the offense and not a focal point, and the team works better with him playing this way. That said, Bledsoe’s success with speed in the last game was an indicator that the Lakers aren’t as comfortable playing a high paced game, so Baron will be asked to push the tempo when he can, while running the offense as efficiently as possible.
Brian Cook doubtful, right ankle sprain
Chris Kaman out, left ankle
Craig Smith out, herniated disc
Matt Barnes out, right knee
Theo Ratliff out, left knee