We resisted the urge to overreact to the positive signs from the two preseason wins against the Lakers, and now we must do the same after some potentially ominous trends surfaced in Game 1 last night. As D.J. wrote, it means that the Clippers are now that good, where they can play such a flawed game and still come away with a 19-point win on the road, albeit against an inferior team.
They did so by dominating three of the essential “four factors,” as noted by Kevin Arnovitz, who covered the game from Oakland for ESPNLA.com. By winning the battle of Effective Field Goal percentage (50.6-42.1), Turnover Rate (10.8-17.2), and Free Throw Rate (46.9-29.3), the Clippers were able to overcome deficiencies on the glass — Golden State won the fourth factor, Offensive Rebound Rate, 36.2-29.5 — and generally shaky play for the majority of the game.
It’s probably safe to assume that they will benefit from more time playing together as the season progresses, and the flow should improve. But after reviewing the game tape, the backcourt, in particular, gave indications that roles may be more unsettled than we originally thought.
- Chauncey Billups’ debut as the starting 2-guard produced mixed results. He paced the team with 38 minutes played and finished the night with 21 points, but those came on 19 shots. Many, especially early on, came outside the flow of the offense we envisioned before the season. Opening night jitters and unfamiliarity with new teammates are certainly in play — there were a few fumbles and miscommunications, including one play on which he threw a laser pass to DeAndre at the elbow, where he has no business catching the ball — but it became evident right off the bat that we may have underestimated the difficulty that Billups might have accepting his new role off the ball. (Which is understandable, he’s being asked to play differently than he has for his whole career.) During his first stint, which spanned the opening 7:34 of the game, he controlled the ball far more than many would have expected in a season expected to be dominated by Chris Paul-Blake Griffin pick-and-rolls. The team finished that stretch down a point, a result of some laughable rebounding effort and swiss cheese defense, but also Billups’ shot selection and a consequent lack of involvement from Paul.
- By my count, Chauncey shot 3-10 spotting up and 2-8 off the dribble (with one more make floating around somewhere in the game film), but the difference in quality between the looks he got was evident — when he played off the ball, he stepped into a bunch of wide-open jumpers that just didn’t fall, but were great shots. It will be interesting to see how this plays out going forward, if the can embrace that aspect of his game or if the playmaking duties among the starting backcourt remain muddled. Chauncey made comments before the season about being one of two point guards, not a shooting guard. While the Clippers can certainly use the versatility he brings as a ballhandler, it remains to be seen if the distribution of responsibilities last night was consistent with their long-term plans. And if it does become an issue, how will the coaching staff handle it?
- Caron Butler played defense, for the most part, like he was coming off of major knee surgery. Not terribly surprising, because he is. He was frequently standing upright, not bending his knees as Warriors wings darted around him, which forced his bigs (DeAndre Jordan) to step up and help. When this happened with such little resistance, the Clippers were left scrambling early in the possession and often unable to recover before the ball got to an open man in the corner. They were lucky on this night that the NBA’s leading 3-point shooter last year, Dorrell Wright, went 1-6 from deep, but leaving shooters of that caliber that open is no way to live. Anyone who has ever suffered a significant lower body injury can understand the tendency to hesitate and react on defense, rather than being the aggressor, but given the dearth of help defenders on the Clippers roster, Game 1 did little to assuage fears that they are vulnerable to attacking wings.
- About two weeks ago, I began writing a post asking, “Are the Clippers going to be in trouble with Mo Williams?” They had just acquired Paul and Billups and all of a sudden, Mo had gone from “All-Star” to “role player.” He made comments then about not being happy but being a professional. I never finished, thinking that these things have a way of working themselves out. Fast forward to Christmas night and the song appears to remain the same. His body language and comments after the game confirm that the situation is not ideal for him, despite how perfectly suited he seems for his role with the team. When Vinny Del Negro pulled him with about 6 minutes left in the game, after hitting a couple shots, he paused in disbelief before walking off the court incredibly slowly. Given how he was playing, you certainly couldn’t blame him. The biggest question here will be, how does Del Negro handle his backcourt rotation going forward? We know Paul will come out only if he is in foul trouble or needs rest. What happens when Mo is playing well and Chauncey isn’t? Or when Caron isn’t cutting it, but the opposing lineup isn’t as small as Golden State’s, making the decision to “go small” much more difficult than it was last night. How Vinny manages these personalities seems, at this point, to be his most obvious challenge of the young season.
- Ultimately, Chris Paul imposed his will on the game. It was a 1-point game with 6:30 left to play, but once Paul came back in, it was over. Over the last six minutes he was 4-4 from the field, with four assists and a +16 rating. He spent a majority of the game deferring to Chauncey and letting the game come to him, attacking with less purpose than we have seen from him before, but he settled in just in time to slice up the Warriors’ D and put the game out of reach. You don’t generally draw up plays to result in your point guard taking contested, long 2′s at the end of shot clocks, but as the game wound down, the Clippers were finally able to space the floor, which gave Paul room to operate. This is why they got him, to keep them in a sloppy game and to win it for them down the stretch.