Just like they did on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a week ago, the Clippers welcomed a last place team to Staples Center for a matinee. With respect to all the potential piftalls of a team in their situation — “coming out sluggish,” suffering the “emotional letdown” following the last-second loss to Minnesota, and “looking forward to the next opponent,” the Lakers — the challenge was clear.
The Raptors, like the Nets, presented an opportunity for an ambitious Clippers team to flex its muscle and pad its cushion atop the Pacific Division. And though they were able to do that against New Jersey, it wasn’t without a hard-fought finish borne out of poor offensive execution and absent defensive fundamentals down the stretch.
Against Toronto, they just used force.
It played out like a classic AAU game between teams that simply don’t match up physically. The Clippers walk into the gym as the established group on the circuit, with an imposing front line of blue chippers, a stable of seasoned, uber-aggressive perimeter players, and a coach who asks only that they use their disproportionate athletic gifts to apply constant pressure to their opponent on both ends of the floor.
While not quite the best prospect of the group, DeAndre Jordan is the biggest, baddest guy out there. His dominating performance in the first quarter — 10 points, 9 rebounds in just over 11 minutes — sends shockwaves throughout the gym. He’s everywhere, it seems.
As the fans in the bleachers go wild with every monster jam, you see the college coaches whisper about about his potential to control the glass (four offensive rebounds) and anchor an NBA defense with this kind of inspired play.
Between Ed Davis (a top prospect himself, but a few years behind Jordan), Amir Johnson, Jamaal Magloire and Aaron Gray, the opponent has no match for his size and strength. By the time Jordan heads to the bench for a breather with under a minute left in the first, they are demoralized and facing a 17-point deficit. He would finish with the game with 16 points and 16 boards, two blocks and a steal, without having to play a minute past the 3:23 mark of the 3rd quarter. At least statistically speaking, it’s his best game yet.
His teammates are clearly feeding off of his energy. They have hands in passing lanes and nearly every Toronto shot is contested. The Raptors — offensively-challenged to begin with and missing their best player, Andrea Bargnani — come in shooting just 42% from the field on the season, but the Clippers hold them to 25% in the first quarter and force seven turnovers to help build their lead.
In their last matinee game, the team’s most gifted player — without question the one all the scouts are here to see — shouldered much of the offensive load, but on this afternoon he makes his mark by diving on the floor and relentlessly attacking the basket. Blake Griffin would get to the free throw line 10 times in the opening period, and though he only hit half of his attempts (continuing a season-long slump), his aggressiveness would help set the tone for the Clippers.
In the first half, their frontcourt trio of Jordan, Griffin and Caron Butler would outscore the Raptors’, 38-3 and outrebound it, 18-6.
But both teams are sloppy with the ball (remember, this is AAU). The Clippers protect the ball better than any team in the league, but their aggressive approach today yields five turnovers in the 1st quarter, 20 in the game. They make up for their mistakes by working to get good looks at the rim (you see them free up their big men with basic cross- and back-screens early on) and finish the 1st quarter shooting 50% from the floor against a Toronto team that hangs its hat on limiting opponents to only 41% shooting — good for second in the league.
With inside presence established, it would be up to the Clippers’ perimeter weapons to take aim. Entering the 2nd quarter down, 27-11, the Raptors turned to a 3/4 court trap and a zone to combat the Clippers’ barrage on the paint — an old AAU trick. For the first 2:39 of the period, it worked to perfection.
With Courtney Fortson running the point, the Clippers struggled to adjust to the new defensive look. Aside from a Blake Griffin dunk, they produced two missed, contested long jumpers, two turnovers and a shot clock violation to start the quarter. On the other end, they committed four fouls, and just like that, the Raptors were within seven, 29-22.
But that was the closest they’d get.
Coach Vinny Del Negro called a timeout to end the run and inserted Chauncey Billups back into the game to replace Fortson. Toronto would stay in the zone and the Clippers continued to hoist jumpers, but having a steady hand and an extra shooting threat helped stabilize the offense. Although he went 0-6 from the floor, Billups became a playmaker and dished out 8 assists in just over 9 minutes in the 2nd quarter.
An up-and-down week for Billups — the high of hitting a game-winning three against the Mavs offset by some cold shooting nights (5-16, 3-12, 7-19) — would culminate in yet another off night from the floor (1-9, 1-7 from 3) but a +23 rating thanks to a whopping 14 assists.
The beneficiary of many of those dimes and the space created by Jordan and Griffin down low was, once again, the swingman, Caron Butler. He carried the load during a portion of the 2nd quarter, going 5-7 from the floor by finding open spots in the zone, knocking down midrange jumpers and mixing in a couple sharp drives to the hoop.
Another veteran of the AAU circuit, Randy Foye, helped key a run out of halftime in which the Clippers went 5-5 to push the lead to 60-38 before Dwane Casey could call timeout. Any chances of a 3rd quarter letdown had been put to rest.
And as if called from the bullpen to pitch the 9th inning, Mo Williams took it from there.
Always confident and coming off games of 26 and 25 points since returning from injury, this is the most most dangerous player of all: the lightning quick combo guard with the ultimate green light and no conscience whatsoever. Williams allows Del Negro to rest every starter but Billups for the entire 4th quarter by simply providing the offense himself. He goes off for 23 in the final period and winds up with 26 for the game, on 15 shots.
On an afternoon when the Clippers held the advantage in almost every area, Williams’ daggers just sealed the deal.