When Eric Gordon’s injury was announced before last Tuesday night’s game against the Mavericks, I know most Clipper fans had the same reaction – There it is. This year’s water main. The Hope Crusher. The Dream Ender. Welcome back hopelessness. Or, you know, some less dramatic version thereof.
But over the last four games – two closer-than-the-score-appeared losses in Texas, followed by two pretty convincing wins at home against mid-level Eastern Conference opposition – a king of cautiously optimistic consensus began to emerge. Maybe this team could win even without Eric Gordon. Maybe the Clips could even steal a few.Guys chip in, step up, the bench plays better – who knows?
Tonight, the other shoe dropped. This was the Eric Gordon Memorial Absence Game. There must have been twenty times tonight that every Clipper fan watching the game said “Man, I wish Eric Gordon was playing.” Here’s a quick list of ways EJ’s absence was felt in tonight’s total domination by the Bulls.
1. Derrick Rose. He had 11 assists and 32 points off only 18 shots. There’s no nice way to say this – he worked Randy Foye like a speed-bag. Rose could get anywhere he wanted to go on the floor at any time, with the ball or without it. When Foye stepped up on him, Rose went around him like Foye was in concrete. When Randy chose not to fight through screens, Rose hit his 3-pointers. On one inbounds play, Foye lost track of Rose completely, allowing him an uncontested lay-up. More than once, I saw Foye completely lost on rotations, literally running away from the play – sprinting towards a perimeter shooter as Derrick Rose drove through the space he was vacating. Eric Gordon has said more than once this season that he relishes guarding the league’s premier scorers – he might not have stopped Rose completely, but he would certainly have made his presence felt.
2. Zombie Lineups. If you live in California and ever listen to State Senate news, you know our senators are warning us that not only are budget cuts coming, but when they do they will primarily threaten the most vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the old. That’s a long way to go for a basketball metaphor, but where EJs absence is felt most is when the “most vulnerable” lineup is on the floor. Twice tonight, once in the first half and once in the second, the Clippers were rolling with a line up of Bledsoe, Butler, Aminu, Cook, and Diahu. You know how many of these players can create their own shot? One. Ike “I was thinking about playing in China before I signed a 10-day contract” Diagu.
Eric Gordon’s offensive game has become so multi-faceted that he punishes defenses for committing too wholly to any one strategy. Play too tight and he’ll beat you to the hole. Play off and he’ll kill you from deep. Play zone and he lights you up off of Foye-like midrange jumpers. It’s his movement that creates the space necessary for guys like Butler, Cook, and Aminu to launch wide open 3s. Without Eric on the court, the Bulls just stayed home on the shooters.
- Three quick sub-bullets within a list embedded in the second paragraph, format be damned. Four if you include this one.
- Vinny shouldn’t play these weaponless Zombine Lineups… not ever. I like how consistent his rotations have been, but drastic times call for drastic measures. My solution? Start Aminu. Hear me out – I said start him, not give him more minutes. This accomplishes a few things. It breaks up Aminu/Bledsoe, which hasn’t been an effective combination the past eight or ten games — too much youth, too little structure. Aminu plays best surrounded by scorers who allow him room to cut and find tips and rebounds. Bring Gomes in midway through the first. He’s not a scorer, but he would bring a defensive presence to the second unit, some cohesion, and he’s at least a credible shooter.
- When Eric Gordon went down, Neil Olshey explicity said the Clippers wouldn’t look to bolster the backcourt with a 10-day D-League contract, explaining that he wanted to see Rasual Butler seize the moment, revive his career and so on and so forth. Olshey should reconsider. It’s hard not to feel for Rasual (0-4 last night, and nothing close), but he was always a shooter who didn’t do much else. Now he can’t shoot. I don’t know much about the D-league, but there has to be a defense first energy guy who can make the occasional corner three, right?
- Lord help me I know not what I do: Baron needs to shoot more.
3. Randy Foye is not Eric Gordon. Tautologically unfair to Randy Foye? Definitely (assuming tautological means what I think it does). But the fact remains – some nights he’ll score 20 and some nights… well, you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about EJ. The game was lost in the first 4 minutes of the second half, when the Bulls scored the first 7 points of the third, stretched a 6-point lead to 13, and never allowed to Clippers to cut it closer than 8 the rest of the game.
Here are the first five Clipper possessions to start the second half.
1. Randy Foye misses a lay-up.
2. Randy Foye travels.
3. DeAndre Jordan called for an offensive foul on an illegal pick.
4. Randy Foye misses a 3.
On the four Chicago possessions during the same stretch, Foye committed two flailing fouls on Rose, and knocked a defensive rebound out of bounds… So… not Randy’s best game basically.
And you know what? With all of that being said, the truth is it’s hard to get too upset about any of it.
Basically, the Clippers ran into a really good team playing really well. All the things the Clippers do well? Tonight, the Bulls did them better. The Clippers are the best rebounding team in the league – tonight, the Bulls beat them decisively on the boards 41-30. They outscored the Clips in the paint, which almost NEVER happens, 46-44. They were hot from 3, outscoring the Clippers by 21 from behind the arc. They didn’t turn the ball over. Their defense was incredibly consistent. They scored second chance points off 7 of their 11 offensive rebounds.
Nights like this – a staple of Clippers fandom for decades – have been few and far between recently and look to be fewer and further between in the future. (Not counting the next four games… which could absolutely be “nights like this.”) In addition to everything else they had working against them, the Clippers were fighting the bounces, the calls, the inevitable momentum of the game. When not just once, but two times a ball gets knocked out-of-bounds by two Clippers going for a defensive rebound… when there isn’t a bull within 40 feet… well, that might not be your night. When the Fox Sports West director started going to the stock blow-out images – glum starters watching trash time from the bench, bummed Spirit girls, Blake working his mouth guard like a stress ball – my first thought wasn’t how depressing the loss was, but how rare losses like this have been.
How bout some bullets, hmmmmmmmm?
- I was surprised when I looked at Blake’s box score line after the game. 32 points, 13 rebounds and 7 (!) assists are career night numbers for 99.9% of the league’s forwards. The surprise was because the image of Blake Griffin I took away from the game was one of frustration – he was frustrated at the line (he missed 9 of 13 free throws, his re-tweaked left elbow seemed to be irritating him), frustrated on the boards (despite his 13 rebounds, he and DeAndre were out offensive-rebounded 10 to 2 by Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer), frustrated by the second half (only 7 points after the break) and visibly frustrated by his inability to shift the game’s momentum, the frustration of being stuck 10 points down the entire second half, completely unable to make a sustained run. (As a side note though – man was he spectacular in the first half. There are many versions of The Blake Griffin Experience, but I think my favorite is Around the World Blake, where he scores four or five consecutive baskets from all over the court, moving from the 10 foot hook shot, to the 18 foot straight away jumper, to the bank shot off the low post, and then back to the baseline Blake Shake, and an alley-oop capper.)
- It feels ungenerous to complain that the Clipper guards have gotten a little happy about throwing alley-oops. Not only do they connect on a high percentage of them, but the alley-oop has residual effects, especially at home where it leaves the crowd buzzing and on their feet for minutes. Still, there’s at least one alley-oop thrown a game that has no chance of succeeding, and an intercepted alley-oop pass, often thrown in the middle of a fast break, usually leads to easy points the other way.
- The countdown to Blake’s first triple-double. It’s happening sooner rather than later. And, for the millionth time, here’s an excuse to note that Griffin isn’t only great, he’s greatly improved, and great at improving. Today’s “he couldn’t have done that a month ago” moment was a pass he threw from the low block, with his back to the basket, over one shoulder to a cutting Ryan Gomes for an easy lay-up. That’s become a little play Blake and Ryan like to run together. I hadn’t seen it all season – until they started hooking up on it about once a game the past three weeks. Just a result of two guys who really understand the game now having played 40 or so games together.
- The Clippers played some zone in the second half, something Vinny has done a few times this year with, I think, pretty mixed results. It was effective in that it successfully persuaded the Bulls to shoot over the top – but “shoot over the top” isn’t supposed to mean “shoot 3-pointers with absolutely no pressure at all.” Plus, box-assignments get completely botched in the zone, meaning that even when the Bulls did miss, either Boozer or Taj Gibson had an easy offensive board.
- My friend Manny’s line of the night, directly after a ridiculous Blake move in the second quarter: “The only time I’ve seen that move before is when you mash A, B, and C at the same time and swivel the joy stick around.”
- What a frustrating game for DeAndre Jordan. 0 points scored on 0 field goals attempted, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 fouls in 30 minutes. It’s been a long time since DeAndre has been so much of a non-factor, and he was definitely frustrated. In an on-court huddle during one fourth quarter time-out you could see DeAndre barking at Blake about a missed assignment on a box-out. My one specific complaint is that DeAndre, despite all his improvements, still needs to go back to Pick School for at least another semester. All of his picks tonight either seemed to be hard, fouling, shoves perpetrated right in front of a referee, or else they were so quick and mushy as to be completely ineffective. You’re 7 feet tall, and built like a brick wall. Stop. Brace. Light suckers up.
- Injured Clippers fashion. Eric Gordon – surprisingly rakish, verging even on mod. I believe those superfluous flaps of cloth on his shoulders are epaulets. And Craig Smith… wow. Was that a black crushed velvet jacket?
- Luol Deng is like Ultimate Aminu, the dream of who Al-Farouq could become. They’re both 6-9, 220ish, with crazy length and surprising body control. If you look at per/36 minute averages, Farouq has already equaled Deng’s rebound and assist rates. It’s a high ceiling for The Chief… but this is a year for high hopes.