With 5:35 to play in the second quarter, game still close, the Clippers were shooting over 50 percent from the field. Mike Smith lauded the Clipper effort, before cautioning that they’ll need to keep it up because the Thunder “will have an 8-0 run here in the first half and you know they’ll have one in the second.” You don’t get to hear understatement uttered from Mike Smith very often, but that was definitely the case. It wasn’t long before the Thunder, despite the Clippers hanging around, bolted off from a 47-46 lead, out on a 15-0 run to finish the quarter 62-46. The Clippers didn’t score a single point during the last 3:33 of the half.
Just like Mike Smith said, the Thunder had another run in the second half, a 10-0 run at the beginning of the fourth quarter that put the game away. Both runs coincided with Blake Griffin on the bench, something that should surprise no one.
The Clippers have had a hard time this year developing a bench unified enough to maintain the status quo in games, if not extend leads or cut into deficits. With the team having large portions of time without their stars (Baron, Kaman and Gordon), the confidence of bigger minutes should reasonably develop a bench. The team was young, and in need of experience, so give them experience. Bledsoe has had his sparks in the year (especially when Baron went down), Aminu played well in November but has struggled since, Kaman was an All Star and when Eric Gordon comes back, Randy Foye should improve the bench. Such was not the case against the Thunder.
What’s unsettling, even in the small sample size of 28 minutes in two games, has been Kaman’s inability to snap out of his shooting funk early in the season. He’s shooting 5 for 13, good for 38 percent shooting. Breaking out of the shooting slump seems reasonable to expect, but Kaman looked pretty lost against the Thunder. He shot 3 for 9 with the same hesitancy of the beginning of the season. However, Kaman’s lack of play is the temporary scapegoat for two larger things: Gordon’s absence and a functional system. Gordon plays at a much higher rate than anyone other than Blake Griffin, EJ’s absence has been a huge loss for the team because he was such a huge cog in the team’s identity. He was the quiet and mysterious lead guitarist to Blake Griffin’s lead singer, one without the other and the band doesn’t work.
As for the functional system, the Clippers are so reliant on Blake and Gordon’s talents that any problem with those two and the Clippers falter greatly. It’s not Old Sloan’s Flex Offense, or Phil Jackson’s (and Tex Winter’s) Triangle, it’s not a San Antonio system, not even Boston. Each of those teams are built in a way that if one player goes down, other players can step up and play. Like the Clippers, the Lakers have had been similarly injury plagued, in recent years the Spurs have been in the same boat (trying to keep Manu and Tony Parker healthy), and the Celtics have to cobble decent performances in the games when their vets (Garnett, Allen and Pierce) can’t play. It’s not even a case of taking years to establish a system, as the Bulls have done it in Thibodeau’s first year (albeit in a defensive scheme) and they’ve had Boozer and Noah, key guys, miss huge portions of the season. Before you say that the Bulls have MVP candidate Derrick Rose, know that Blake is in that category.
When Eric Gordon returns, he will mask many of the deficiencies of the team, but the Clippers will still have some huge foundational questions that they need to address to become relevant.
• As if the play of the bench didn’t implicitly show Blake Griffin’s worth, his play tonight showed it directly. He came close to his first triple double, scoring 28 points on 9 for 15 shooting, yanked 11 rebounds and dispersed 8 assists. Not bad at all. There was still some work that he needs to do, he was whistled for some fouls that he’ll learn to avoid. One was a spin move at the end of the third quarter when he was called for a charge, drawn by Nick Collison. He was pulled from the game to protect from fouling out, and the Thunder seized the momentum. Partly due to his aggressive play, but Blake can still learn footwork that will allow him to avoid those calls. Even still, Blake is the catalyst for the team. Even more impressive was that Blake did this after a hectic All Star Weekend and attending the funeral of his high school teammate.
• Al-Farouq Aminu. You know this, I know this, but Aminu has been playing terribly in the last months. His shooting has been cold and while there have been improvements in his turnovers, he’s still a TO machine. But what I liked about tonight was that Aminu didn’t try to get his shots from the perimeter, but returned to the paint to get his points. Nice place to start, he shot 5 for 6 (with a three in garbage time). The Clips could really use his improvement.
• Randy Foye’s D. Jordan Heimer, Krai and Alex are going to kill me for this, but I think that Foye has done pretty well on defense lately, tonight particularly. Foye switched defensive assignments with Baron from the start, marking the elusive Russell Westbrook. Westbrook didn’t look like his normal self, Foye holding Westbrook to 3 for 11 shooting. Like Foye’s offense, his spurts of defense are not consistent enough to be a starter, but he does play some defense when he has it going.
• Bledsoe had another solid game off the bench (13 points, 4 assists), if you can overlook the 5 turnovers. Mike Smith broke down a sequence of Eric Maynor crossing up Baron and Baron recovering more slowly than normal, remarking that he looks slower than he did a week ago, with that being the case, why not see if Bledsoe can’t play more minutes?