Yesterday afternoon I was stuck in traffic on the way back from San Diego, weighing the risks of (illegally) using the diamond lane, and listening to a sports talk radio debate weighing the relative merits of Lamar Odom vs. Blake Griffin for the West’s final All-Star spot. (Of course, in accordance with local sports talk’s strict homerism laws, neither Lamarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love even rated a mention.) “Blake Griffin’s got great numbers,” opined one host. “But he doesn’t bring the dimensionality (sic) or the intangibles to the game that Lamar does.”
A few hours later, with the score against Golden State tied at 105 and less than a minute to play in a game the Clippers absolutely had to win, Blake Griffin hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, a shot that deserves its own paragraph.
For starters, it was a set play. It’s one thing when a big man sinks a desperation heave, but here was a play specifically designed to get the Blake this shot. The Clippers were inbounding the ball coming out of a time out with 2 seconds left on the shot clock. Eric Gordon made a cut towards the ball, two defenders followed him, and Blake was left literally unguarded. I can’t top Mike Smith’s description of Blake’s shot, so I’ll borrow it instead. “He shot it like he was playing horse at the end of practice,” from about 28 or 30 feet. My Lord, if Ryan Gomes shot his 3s with the same confidence, I swear he’d be a 50% 3-point shooter. Vinny’s offense has been criticized as simplistic, but he consistently gets the ball to his best players in big spots. Blake’s stroke was pure all night (he was 9-10 from the stripe) and the decision to get him the ball in this spot, knowing he would almost certainly be left uncovered, was a great call. Randy Foye hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to ice it, and that was that.
Whatever “dimensionality” is, it was hard to watch tonight’s game and come away thinking it was something Lamar Odom has that Blake lacks. He came up two assists short of his first career triple-double, finishing with 30 points, 18 rebounds, and 8 assists in a team high 41 minutes. I thought that the 47 points against the Pacers, a total he racked up mostly on jump shots and post moves (and without a single dunk) would correct the “accepted wisdom” among fans who don’t watch the Clips night in night out that Blake’s game is somehow lumbering, one dimensional, and unrefined, but I guess. Maybe his new sniping from downtown will do the trick. (As for “intangibles,” I’m hard pressed to say one way or another if Lamar has them and Blake somehow doesn’t – they are, after all, intangible. And all that tangible stuff is so persuasive.)
Give the Warriors credit – they did not make this one easy. After a first half in which Blake and Eric Gordon seemed to be able to take the ball to the rack pretty much any time they wanted, Keith Smart had Golden State in a 2-3 zone for most of the second half, bookending the low post with their bigs, and pretty much begging the Clippers to beat them on the open corner three.It was a gamble that almost paid off in a comeback win. The Clippers were a miserable 7 for 33 from downtown on mostly wide open looks. If there was ever a night to bring Rasual Butler out of retirement this might have been it – as bad as he has played this season, that short corner three is his bread and butter.
Good teams find ways to win bad games. The relatively high score belies what was actually a choppy game between two teams without their legs, with the Warriors playing the second half of a back to back on the road, and the Clippers playing their fifth game in seven days. I remember writing, in the aftermath of one of the many early season collapses, that one hallmark of this young team was their tendency to let mistakes snowball, the inability to mitigate off nights. Too often, the young Clippers looked like poker players on tilt, whose make increasingly wild play only hastens the inevitable bust out.
With the exception of Blake and Eric Bledsoe, none of the Clippers had their “A games” tonight, but no one imploded either. Guys like Aminu (1-6 from 3), Randy Foye (1-7 from 3), Baron Davis (3-10, 1-6 downtown), and Eric Gordon (1-6 from 3) all continued to move the ball, take open shots, and stay interested on defense despite their struggles from the field. One reason the Clippers of just two months ago couldn’t survive a shooting night like this is because they would compound it with turnovers and an inability to hit free throws. Tonight, they refused to beat themselves, turning the ball over only 12 times, and hitting 80% of their free throws on 32 for 40 from the stripe. And thier ball movement continues to be excellent. Since the beginning of the 12-6 run, the Clippers lead the league in assists. Vinny’s offense may not be complex, but it doesn’t have to be. When everyone on the floor has both the ability and the willingness to pass and cut, you are destined to find a lot of open shots.
A few odds and ends on specific players:
- Eric Gordon has certainly had an “All Star caliber” first half, and I’m sure he’s disappointed that the West’s surfeit of quality guards will almost certainly keep him off the team, but my guess would be he’s mostly looking forward to a four day break. With his shot not falling, EJ went into early season penetration mode, driving directly at the Warrior’s big men and then using that preternatural body control to elude them in the air. Everyone talks about how violently Blake plays, but Gordon hits the floor nearly as often, usually as a result of his cannonball drives to the rim. He went down hard early in the third, and reappeared after a stretch in the locker room with a heavily wrapped right wrist and reported “back contusion.” He played a few minutes in the fourth (although he didn’t make any shots) and in the post game interview insisted he was more bruised than hurt. Still, there was a stretch of fourth quarter when we got a look at an Eric Gordonless Clipper offense, and it’s not something we want to see too much of. Vinny had a shooting lineup on the court, with Foye, Baron, Gomes, and Bledsoe spreading the perimeter, but without EJ to confuse the defense’s spacing with his penetration and curls, the defense was able to stay home on the shooters, denying them open looks. Kind of amazing how much better Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes look when they’re wide open.
- Stephen Curry nearly beat the Clippers by himself, sparking the Warriors’ comeback by scoring 16 of his 32 points in the third quarter. I can’t pretend to watch a ton of Warriors games, but Curry was showing off a series of floaters and 6-foot runners in the lane tonight that he certainly hadn’t showed in the teams’ first three meetings this season. I still think his wispy frame makes him a defensive liability, especially against a muscular backcourt like Davis and Gordon, but it’s impressive how quickly he has learned a point guard’s arsenal.
- Randy Foye – closer? Despite being as cold from 3 as everyone else (he shot just 1-7 from deep) Foye was big when it mattered, thwarting the Warriors’ attempt to extend the game by hitting 5 of 6 free throws in the last 20 seconds. After the game, Foye admitted that this first stretch of steady rotation minutes has him a little fatigued, but he continues to do one or two little things every night to help the team win.
- Eric Bledsoe was excellent. Baron picked up his second foul early, and Bledsoe came in and played his heaviest first half minutes (14) since the victory over Detroit on December 17th.What impresses me most is how quickly both he and Aminu have learned to be role players in a system. It’s not so much about making or missing shots, but taking shots in the flow of the offense. Bledsoe basically only shoots three ways – on drives to the hoop, on open threes late in the shot clock, and that completely unguarded 16 footer teams give him when they double off him onto Blake. If he can consistently hit that mid range shot, he’s going to be very dangerous.
- DeAndre’s free throw form looks so much better than it did last year – but his success rate is virtually unchanged. How can that be?
- I have a game I play with my friend Manny where we call “Make” or “Miss” as Ryan Gomes is rising for his jump shot. I’ve never seen a player more obviously either “in rhythm” or “hesitating” when he shoots. I know that pop psychologizing based on how someone plays is essentially reading tea leaves, but you can practically see Gomes thinking: “Should I take this shot? Wouldn’t a more advisable play be to pass it to a higher percentage shooter? Is there time to reset?” Too bad, because when he doesn’t hesitate he has the team’s purest stroke this side of Eric Gordon and Randy Foye.
- Blake managed to rile up not one but two more veterans tonight, exchanging heated words with both Monta Ellis and David Lee in the second half. I’d love to know what Clipper Nation thinks the root cause is. Certainly, the stock fan-boy answer is that veterans get fed up of being outworked, outshined, outdunked, and outplayed by a rookie. And there’s something to that. But I wonder if there might not also be a small Eddie Haskel element to Blake’s game as well, where he goes right up the line between “energetic” and “pushy” or just plain “dirty,” and sometimes crosses it, often without getting caught. Thoughts?