When the news came in, hours before tip last night, that Eric Gordon is expected to miss 3 or 4 weeks with a bone spur in his wrist, I’m sure Clipper fans had the same thought — Here we go again. One year and one week after the infamous Memphis Water Main Break, the Clippers will once again be challenged to sustain mid-season momentum despite losing one of their stars. E.J. won’t be easy to replace. Gordon’s Usage Rating (a measurement of how often a team runs a play through a particular player) is only a hair behind Blake Griffin’s at 27.11, meaning the Clippers are going to have to spread out more than a quarter of their total possessions among the remaining players. Not only has Gordon become one of the NBA’s best scorers, currently standing eighth in the league with 24.1 points a game, but unlike Kobe, say, he also draws the toughest defensive assignment night after night, defending scorers against whom he often gives up three or four inches.
If there is any silver lining to Gordon’s injury it is timing. Let’s assume that 3-4 weeks almost definitely takes us through the All-Star Game, but, hopefully, not too much further past that. (He almost definitely won’t return sooner. Teams almost always use All Star Weekend to help guys rest, and bringing EJ back for a game or two before the break seems pretty unlikely.) The schedule between now and then is extremely polarized. With the exception of tonight’s game in Houston, all of the Clips’ opponents between now and February are either really really good (Chicago, Altanta, Miami, Orlando, the Knicks at the Garden) or pretty bad (Charlotte, Toronto, Minnesotta, Cleveland, Milwaukee twice). If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope, any way to keep believing that the Clippers’ (already slim) chances of making the playoffs is still alive this is it — in the next ten games they definitely lose the game they would have probably lost even with Gordon, and they manage to beat some of the league’s worst teams even without him.
The actual game tonight almost seemed scripted with the purpose of reminding Clipper fans how difficult it is going to be to win without Eric Gordon.. The Clippers came out hot, building a 15 point lead early in the second quarter, but even as it was happening it felt less like a sustainable pace and more like shooting variance. Ryan Gomes hit three of his first four shots, including two from deep. Randy Foye hit his first two shots. Baron sank two three pointers. Blake made three of his four midrange jumpers. Midway through the second quarter the Clippers were shooting a scorching 70%. Meanwhile, Dallas started as cold as the Clippers were hot, sinking only two shots from beyond 8 feet in the first quarter.
There have been plenty of nights this season where the Clippers have completely unraveled on the way to losing double digit leads. As per usual, the Clippers inflicted a good part of the damage themselves. Dallas scored 34 points off 24 Clipper turnovers, many of which were unforced (Bledsoe, Foye, and Baron all dribbled balls off feet and out of bounds).Plus, the Clippers brought their normal mediocrity to the line, making only 17 of 28 free throws.
But while the Clippers may not have played crisp enough basketball to beat a good team on the road, mostly the Mavs comeback felt preordained. Anyone who has watched the Clippers this year knows how important Eric Gordon is to this team, but in some ways I guess I didn’t realize how important. EJ has become one of the league’s true scorers, a triple threat who can beat you from behind the arc, coming off screens in his midrange game, or driving to the hole. The ability to beat the defense from all three “levels” not only makes Gordon a difficult cover, it punishes defense that overcommit to taking away one of his weapons. Too often the second half offense was reminiscent of the final minutes of the Golden State game, when the Clippers offense consisted of four guys throwing the ball around the perimeter while Blake bounced from man to man in the paint, trying to find an inch of space. Baron did everything he could do to “make up” for Gordon’s absence (his 21 points included four 3-pointers), but without EJ the team felt weaponless, impotent.
So how did the Mavericks go from down 15 in the second to up almost 20 in the fourth? Well, if you’ve seen, say, any Dallas Mavericks game in the last ten years, you probably recognized the formula.
First, they tightened up the defense. Particularly in the second half, the Dallas strategy was to allow Blake to catch the inlet pass and then swarm him, often with three players. Blake had 12 points mid may through the first quarter, but was held to only ten the rest of the way. There aren’t many quick 7-footers in the NBA, but the Mavs have two of them in Tyson Chandler and Brandon Heywood, each of whom made life very difficult for Blake last night. Essentially, the Mavs bet that the Clippers couldn’t keep beating them from the outside without Eric Gordon… and they bet right. Expect to see the Clippers see a lot more of the same, along with more of the 3-2 zones Keith Smart used on Sunday. It was stunning to realize, without Eric Gordon on the floor, how little motion the rest of the Clippers guard core give you. Baron is good for three or four dribble penetrations a game, but basically it’s a bunch of guys standing outside the three point line getting ready to launch a jumper.
Then, Dallas started hitting shots. They shot 56% in the second half, including 11 for their final 16 from beyond the arc. There were moments when you could have been forgiving for thinking you were watching the 2002 All-Star game. Dirk got his 20. Shawn Marion scored ten points to go along with ten rebounds. Jason Kidd had 7 assists. Jason Terry scored a game high 28, including 19 in the final quarter. The player of the game, though (despite what Prime Ticket may have told you) was undoubtedly J.J. Barea. I’ve noticed that when short guys start to go off, announcers (I’m looking at you Mike Smith) always describe them as being “full of heart.” Maybe I’m just sensitive to the implicit patronization because I’m short, but tonight it looked a lot more like J.J. Barea was “full of jump shots.” He had a career night, scoring 25 points on a mere 12 shots, and made his first 7 of the game. He also played gnatty defense. He wasn’t given credit in the box score for any steals, but his hands were everywhere, slapping the ball back off Bledsoe off an inbounds pass, interrupting passes in the lane, poking the ball free from Baron when he tried to post up the smaller Barea. In the critical second quarter, when Dallas staunched the bleeding and began to grind its way back into the game, Barea was the spark.
Final Thought: I wrote about Blake Griffin’s propensity of upsetting opposing veterans after the Golden State game, and whether, at least in part, this was in any way Blake’s fault. Here’s Brendon Heywood describing what happened on the flagrant foul he was called for against Blake. “On those type of plays he has to realize, ‘All right, I got fouled, just throw it at the rim and come down.’ Protect yourself for the next play. Every play can’t be a dunk-contest dunk.” Heywood wasn’t angry with Griffin, merely pointing out that Blake’s refusal to give up on a play — even in the middle of being fouled — increase his chance of injury as much as anything an opponent does. Thoughts?