It’s hard to get too upset by this one. The Clippers were waxed the Lakers last night at the Staples Center, 108 – 95, in a game that couldn’t have felt less like the last Battle of Staples Center. That game, although only a little over a month ago, now seems like something from another era. Eric Gordon was healthy. The Clippers were in the middle of winning 10 of 14 games. Baron Davis was defending Blake Griffin against the shoving of Lamar Odom in the final moments of a hard fought and deeply earned Clipper victory. Clipper fans were starting to whisper about the playoffs.
Tonight’s game was played in one of those lulls between moments. The past is on its way to Cleveland, while the back court of the future, Mo Williams and Eric Gordon, sat together behind the Clipper bench, watching in their suits. There was a disjointed quality to this game. The first two Clipper-Laker games this season really felt like rivalry games, intense and passionate, but the fragmented squad the Clippers ran out there tonight just couldn’t compete. Even the Lakers seemed a little confused.
At the end of the first half the Clippers were only down two points, 52-50, but there were some pretty obvious reasons to doubt the sustainability of the Clips’ efforts. They shot the lights out, particularly in the first quarter, where they made 11 of 21 shots, including 5 threes. Randy Foye was red hot. He had 17 at the break and was 4-5 from downtown. DeAndre Jordan – in what might have been the season’s unlikeliest play – closed the half with a coast to coast drive punctuated with a delicate finger roll. It was exciting stuff… but not the kind of stuff that’s easy to replicate in the second half.
Kobe had a particularly quiet first half, scoring only 6 points, and heading into the locker room early after he appeared to tweak his wrist trying to defend a Randy Foye jumper. Kobe came out in the second half wearing one of those AI sleeves, only this was purple and endowed, evidently, with magical healing powers. He went off in the third quarter, scoring 18 points on 11 shots – one more point, by the way, than the Clippers managed the entire quarter. It was one of those five minute stretches where – no matter what advanced statistics tell us – your eyes refuse to believe that Kobe isn’t still the deadliest scorer in the league. The Lakers put him on the move, and most of the baskets came on deep catch and shoots late in the clock – in other words, the kind of baskets where each one feels like a mini punch in the stomach. By the time he was done, the Lakers led by nearly 20, the game was in hand, and Kobe went back to the bench and didn’t play at all in a 4th quarter of extended garbage time.
Anyway. My expectations are pretty low for the Celtics game tonight. Until Mo Williams and Eric Gordon get on the court together, it’s impossible to assess the team — and probably also impossible to beat the Celtics.
A few individual notes:
- Neil Olshey on the Clipper pregame on 980: “We don’t want to just make the playoffs next year. We want to be a factor.” Big words, and I wonder about their implication. If I had to read tea leaves here, I would say that Olshey’s unapologetic ambition for next year implies that the Clippers will try to move, say, Kaman and the T-Wolves pick for one more major piece, probably scoring from the 3 or a gunner off the bench. Otherwise I think he would take more of a Sam Presti line, and talk about developing the young talent at a reasonable pace, etc. etc.
- Blake Griffin had a good game that could have been great. He had 10 rebounds to go along with 22 points on 7-18 shooting, but it was kind of a Bizarro night for Blake. There aren’t many nights that Blake looks more comfortable stroking his jumper than he does finishing at the rim. Tonight his moves at the rim looked a little discombobulated. Some of this came from the Lakers defense, which, predictably, chose to double and triple team Blake on practically every possession, daring Rasual Butler and Eric Bledsoe to hit shots. Still, you don’t often see Blake miss two alley-oop finishes, one of them so convincingly that Ralph was in the middle of calling it “a thunderous slam” before he realized the ball had skipped off the rim and out of bounds. And Pau Gasol, not usually known for his defensive enthusiasm, was all over Blake, harrying him at the rim and stuffing him twice.
- Al Farouq Aminu continues to show tantalizing glimpses. What’s cool to me is that you can tell from the way he is playing that he’s getting good advice from his coaches, who must be encouraging him to focus on the process right now rather than on the results. Even when he was hitting 45% of his 3s it always seemed like fools gold to me, because his athleticism (in particular the way he can drive from the 3 point line to the basket with 3 giant steps) is far too good to just consign him to the corner and tell him to shoot threes. Aminu has been much more aggressive attacking the basket the last 10 games or so, and while it still hasn’t paid dividends in the box score, he already looks much more comfortable and integrated int he offense. Keep it up Chief.
- There’s so much to like about Eric Bledsoe: his speed, his hustle, his length, a knack for finding offensive rebounds that can’t be taught. But his jumper is truly an ugly looking thing, almost a push shot, where he dips his right hand low to the waist and then heaves the ball. It’s a shooting style you see more often at the YMCA than in the NBA. Can a shot that looks like that ever be consistent? Someone call David Thorpe.
- A few stray thoughts on Baron that I couldn’t manage to squeeze into my Baron column:
- Could he fail his physical in Cleveland? How do physicals of injured players work? I assume there’s medical full disclosure and a trade can only be voided if some new injury is unearthed – like a heart problem, say – but I don’t really know.
- That Kia Optima commercial that shows the Kia Dunk in slow mo is now officially the world’s saddest/most ironic commercial. Just look at Baron popping out of the sun roof. Look at how ecstatic he is as he watches Blake rise over him, briefly eclipsing him, and then slam the ball home. Who knew that the Dunk Contest, of all places, would be the Final Good Time for Baron in L.A?
- I don’t know what I expected the broadcast to do for Baron – a highlight reel tribute? some final thoughts from Milph? – but the quickness and enthusiasm with which everyone endorsed the deal was surprising, considering how much Milph always seemed to enjoy Baron. Early in the game Dain Blanton, of all people, voiced unequivocal support for the move, not stopping at pointing out Mo Williams strategic strengths (consistent outside scoring, a good fit with Eric Gordon as a combo guard) but going on to say that “everyone in the locker room” was excited that the team now truly belong to Blake and EJ. I’d like to know who “everyone” in the locker was.
- Am I the only one who yells “There’s some really good energy in here right now” every time Rasual makes a shot?
- Chris Kaman is starting to look like Chris Kaman again. This must especially please the Clippers because according to the L.A. Times’ Lisa Dillman, the plan is to try and move Kaman this summer. The more he plays like he did tonight – grabbing nine boards and scoring 10 points in 19 minutes – the more the Clippers can get for him. He’s starting to look very smooth again on that little 10 foot baseline shot, a shot that has always been his bread and butter when he’s playing well.
- Good to see Willie Warren get a little run. He took some off balance shots, but basically you have to like what you see. Like Olshey’s other picks, Aminu and Bledsoe, Warren uses his energy and athleticism to fill up a box score, passing out 4 assists and grabbing 4 boards in only 9 minutes. It would be nice to see a little more of him before he’s inevitably sent back down to The Jam.
- Call me a cynic, but Kobe Bryant winces more than any other athlete I’ve ever seen.