For a meaningless Mid-March game between two lottery-bound squads, there was no shortage of interesting story lines surrounding today’s game against the Cavs: 1. Eric Gordon’s second attempt to return from his wrist injury. 2. Baron Davis’ return to the Staples Center. 3. The Clippers attempt not to be swept by the league’s worst team, a month after becoming the answer to future Jeopardy question Who did the moribund 2011 Cleveland Cavaliers beat, finally ending a league record 26 game losing streak? (Most people won’t know the answer but will guess the Clippers anyway). Then, far lower on the list: 4. Blake Griffin “Hitting the Rookie Wall” watch. 5. Trying to figure out whatever there is to figure out from watching the team finally play at full strength.
Oh, and also an hour before the game a man charged out of the stands wielding a steak knife, after which, according to the Clippers Post Game radio show, he was surrounded by a joint task force of police men and Staples Center Security elite and subdued with rubber bullets. So there was a lot going on.
Maybe the knife really shook people, because what followed was an uneven game, not unlike the one the Clips lost to the Cavaliers last month. The Cavaliers never led after the second quarter – but the Clippers never put together the 8 minute stretch of energetic error-free basketball that would have put the Cavs away.
For me, at this point in the season the answers to certain individual questions (How will Mo Williams work with Eric Gordon? Could Kaman be a Sixth Man for an entire season?) have become as important as wins and losses. It seems natural that players also sense it when that barrier has been crossed. These Clippers are definitely still playing hard (unlike, say, last March’s contract hunters, Travis Outlaw and Drew Goodon… which, by the way, worked for both of them) but there were signs of inattention scattered between spurts of good play – the kind of foolish mistakes there seemed to be fewer of when the team was still “in contention.”
There were quarters that ended on possessions when the Clippers failed to get off a final shot. There were total defensive breakdowns, where everyone would simultaneously abandon the paint – at one point allowing a man named Alonzo Gee to streak untouched down the paint and rise for a full 360 slam like he was auditioning for the dunk contest. There were multiple lane violations. Little signs of a team with wavering attention.
But in the end, the Cavs were just worse. I mean, I know piling on bad play is pure hubris for a Clippers fan, but aside from JJ Hickson (who, if you’ve only seen him play against the Clippers you must think is one of the ten best players in the NBA) these Cavs played some ugly basketball. There was one inexplicable stretch early in the fourth quarter when – down 2, and on the verge of taking the lead – the Cavs burned three consective possessions on Lake Harangody jump shots, the first of which was one of the ugliest shots you will ever see in an NBA game. Or any basketball game, for that matter. The fact that epitomizes the Cavs play today: In their 6 possessions in the final 2 minutes the Cavs managed a total of three shot attempts. The Clippers didn’t play particularly well, but they did just enough to put away a weak team.
So that was the game. What about those storylines?
How’s Eric Gordon look?
Plenty of people realize Eric Gordon “took a step” this year, but I think to some extent Blake Griffin’s All-World rookie season (in addition, obviously, to EJ’s recent injuries) have overshadowed how dramatic that leap has been. There’s a short list of guys in the NBA who can roll off an injury and drop 29 points, guys who – judging from their blasé reactions – expect to walk in and drop 29. Eric Gordon is on that list.
Last year, Eric Gordon’s poor performances in “return” games were blamed on a lack of confidence. He would look tentative, as if each time he came back he was readjusting all over again – to his shot, his legs, the speed of the game, the flow of the team. What happened to that Eric Gordon? He came out gunning two weeks ago coming off the Wrist Part I, and tonight he did the same. It was a showcase of his confidence this year. On his first touch, he knifed to the basket, split two defenders, forced contact, and made a tough shot as he went to the floor. After jacking up a couple ugly looking contested 3s in the first half, Gordon found the range in the fourth quarter, knocking down 3 in 4 possessions. He was 6 for 10 from three and completely without that hesitations we saw from Eric as recently as past November. I really don’t know how to explain it. (It would pain me to credit the magic of Coach K even a little). But I can’t ever remember watching another player so fully going from a guy who seemed a little shaky in the confidence department to being a cold blooded scorer who always wants to take his shot.
Also, he still has that Demolition Man haircut.
There really wasn’t one. Baron sat this one out with back spasms. It’s hard not to feel for Baron who, according to reports, learned that his grandmother had to check into the hospital the same day he was traded for Cleveland. I’ve already waxed poetic about Baron plenty, but it’s depressing to imagine Baron freezing away his final productive years in Cleveland. (Is there still buyout talk? Is the idea of Baron coordinating the circus in Miami crazy?)
Is Blake Griffin hitting the “Rookie Wall?”
Blake had his best game in a month, scoring 30 points along with 9 rebounds and 8 assists. It was a good day for youtube curators of Blake Griffin highlight reels, who have suffered through a slow month. Surprisingly, Cleveland chose to play Blake one-on-one for much of the game, despite not really having a player in their front court capable of matching up with him physically. Samardo Samuels drew the unenviable assignment the most often, and was victimized accordingly, first with a down-the-lane reverse jam, and later with a stumbling upside down prayer that was first called a travel, then a basket with a foul, and finally a foul before the act. Whatever. It was pretty spectacular.
The huge stats, of course, don’t necessarily disprove the idea that Blake Griffin might be hitting the dreaded “Rookie Wall.” It would be strange if Griffin wasn’t tired. He’s played starter’s minutes for 60 games, didn’t have an All-Star break, and was forced to become the primary offensive weapon at the same time that coaches were beginning to game plan for him anyway. That takes a toll. Blake had room tonight, a rare commodity during Eric Gordon’s absence, in addition to relatively weak opposition. On the East Coast trip, teams were using two guys to force Blake to make plays 12-18 feet from the basket. Today, Blake got whatever position he wanted with a power dribble and a few backward jolts. Luckily, the Clippers next two opponents – Phoenix and Washington – aren’t strong inside either so… undecided. He clearly has plenty left, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t lost a little pop. (The decrease in rebounds the past two weeks might be a better indicator of this than points, which I think had a lot to do with opponent’s ability to double Blake without consequences in the absence of Eric Gordon).
(By the way: Blake’s quote on the pre-game knife-wilder: “That was crazy man. There aren’t too many stand offs in Oklahoma. Not that I can remember.” Wait – does that mean he is leaving for the Thunder?)
What do we learn about the team flow with everyone playing?
Simple. To steal a word from Mike Smith, Eric Gordon changes the entire “geometry” of the team. His slashing ability makes it impossible for defenses to smother Blake with unvarying double teams. On defense, his ability to keep perimeter scorers out of the lane creates far fewer easy layups and/or situations where DeAndre or Blake have to foul. How many times in the past month have Blake and DeAndre been left alone to stop a streaking shooter? In short, the next time Eric Gordon gets injured I probably shouldn’t write that “Randy Foye can be Eric Gordon lite – at least for a few weeks.” Eric Gordon is a star. Mike borrowed a little flair from Clyde, noting that EJ “alleviates and facilitates.” And if Eric Gordon, it turns out, is as essential to this team’s success as any player, then is it time to start worrying about his propensity to injury? He missed 20 games last year, and he’ll miss almost 30 this year. With such a small sample size it’s hard to separate a few unrelated humps and bruises from a pattern. Time will tell obviously.
(Also – and I know this should be its own post – but in terms of “what the team needs going forward” take a look at the list of free agents that went up on ESPN. Pretty uninspiring group of small forwards (the Clippers most obvious need). Fliers on Caron Butler or Tayshaun Prince, or maybe Vlad Rad, CJ Miles. And down from there. Last off season, Neil Olshey showed admirable restraint in staying away from overpaying a free agent just to get a free agent. It will be interesting to see if that means he is more likely to try to trade than give, say, Prince 3 years 18 million dollars)
More proof that Kaman would make a good sixth man
I’m fully in this camp. I’m convinced Chris Kaman could win the sixth man of year. I know it’s not traditional, but there are so many things I like about Kaman as a sixth man (this is all assuming DeAndre and Kaman are still on the team next year.) 1. The mismatches. No back up 5 in the West could guard him. 2. As the sub he’ll often be in when the team is in the penalty, minimizing DJs foul shots. 3. He’s a guy who needs to get into a rhythm. You need to get Kaman his shots, but not at the expense of Blake, EJ, and Mo Williams. I love the lineups where Vinny plays Kaman with an energy unit (Aminu, Bledsoe, Moon, Smith, say) and just features Kaman in the post, play after play. Today, we saw the equally important corollary: When Kaman is off, the damage is limited. Sabermatricians can argue over the myth of the hot hand, but Chris Kaman is the streakiest guy I’ve ever seen. Today was one of those days for Chris – missed shots, sloppy fouls on defense, a few ungainly looking turnovers. But it’s effect on the flow of Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin was limited – and the rest of the second unit still continued to play hard defense and crash the boards.