This blowout over the Grant Hill-less (and that’s not insignificant) Suns makes it 3-in-a-row. If the Clippers manage to win on Friday against the Trail Blazers, who probably aren’t as hapless as most thought they would be post-Gerald Wallace trade, it would make for what I believe would be the first winning streak longer than 3 games on the season. So that’s nice.
In terms of the game that we just saw, I’ll abandon my usual outright pessimism for a quiet focus on the positive things that surprised me. I’ll open with the obscure — Eric Bledsoe looked good enough for me to actually buy into the idea that he could be a really solid back-up in the future. Teams have taken to zoning up the Clippers from time to time, especially when Chris Paul is out and Bledsoe is in. But against Sebastian Telfair’s (and I don’t think I’m off in calling it this) hapless defense, Bledsoe pretty calmly tried to get the ball swinging around against the zone, and also had some nice dribble-probe action. He still threw a pretty crazy cross-court jump-pass at one point, but he at least seemed to have some kind of plan when running the show. Defensively, he showed off a bit more of a controlled aggression, which is huge because it’s pretty ridiculous to have a guard averaging almost 5 fouls per 36 minutes (while also fouling jumpshooters too often).
More relevantly, Blake and Chris Paul might have had their best night together as a pick-and-roll tandem. As usual, there were more issues than the numbers would lead you believe: Blake still popping too much and being asked to make jumpers from farther out than 15-feet with regularity is what I view as the main issue. But despite hitting a few jumpers, Blake didn’t fall in love with the shot (and the defense wasn’t honoring it, either, so he could have fired them all night). He had some solid hesitation rolls to free himself up (but to be clear, the Suns aren’t a good defensive team even with their best defender in Grant Hill not injured), and he was looking to pass on the catch when met with a good rotation from the D. However, it would be great if we saw him flash through the lane more often and be a bit closer to the basket when asked to be a high-post-type initiator (15-feet/a half-step below the foul line rather than rather uselessly receiving catches at something more like 17-feet). Blake also gives up so much post position to get the ball, and he often doesn’t have to. Blake’s numbers are of course excellent on offense, but just imagine how much better he would be if he just held his ground and waited for the entry pass. And if teams start shading him before the catches, that opens up easier swing passes for penetration for the wings. We can at least dream about it.
Perhaps the main idea from the whole affair is that the Clippers got back a bit more to what we saw earlier in this season, where they may have had some bad stretches against a team they (theoretically) should blow out. Rather than the usual higher heat/effort in the 4th, we saw what I think was better effort right out of the gate in the 2nd half as a whole. The Clippers should have done a much better job on the glass against the Suns, for instance, but I still felt as if the team came out with more determination and actually made some of the easier adjustments (especially in terms of focusing their efforts on the boards and getting into the lane) after struggling in the 1st half.
Speaking of adjustments, you may notice when glancing at the box score that the Clippers’ bench had ridiculous +/-. Vinny did a solid job of mixing in starters with the limited bench tonight, which isn’t something we always see. Keeping DeAndre in with Kenyon Martin, plugging in Caron Butler with Nick Young so he isn’t asked to create everything with Chris Paul and Blake on the bench (hopefully we’ll see the end of Mo Williams-as-only-offensive-option lineups when he returns, as well). And when Vinny decided to go full-bench, he only let Bledsoe-Young-Simmons-Martin-Evans go for 3 and a half minutes, although I’d still like to pretty much never see that sort of 5-man grouping if possible. At the same time, the team has a lot of limited role players and the starters have to rest some time. Generally, Vinny seems to be aiming for a large amount of 4-5 starters playing together as often as possible while just hoping the bench can survive. But at the same time, there are match-ups that the Clippers can dictate by mixing up the rotations depending on need (and that doesn’t mean upsetting anyone by taking playing time, by the way, but rather staggering your rotations differently), and we saw a bit of that from Vinny tonight — only playing Reggie Evans 5 minutes. Realizing that Reggie can’t handle a guy like Marcin Gortat (who went off because the pick-and-roll D is still just not there, both in terms of guards getting through screens, communication from the back line, rotation from the back line, communication from big defender and guard, I could go on) or even the likes of Robin Lopez (he is 7-feet tall and can hit a hook over an overmatched defender) is a big step in the right direction for the Clippers being able to hold ground while the starters rest, as well as not allowing teams to dig the Clippers into deep holes.
To close, I’d like to welcome Caron Butler back to the land of offensive effectiveness, as well as congratulate the Clippers on not allowing a team to absolutely kill them from deep (although a fair amount of that 2/11 3P from Channing Frye wasn’t the defense so much as Frye missing a lot). All in all, I’m willing to identify this game as a small step in the right direction in terms of the team enjoying the type of success that reasonable expectations placed on them before the start of the season.