I had a feeling things were getting a bit too easy. A few blowout wins against disadvantaged teams is all the Clippers can handle. LaMarcus Aldridge out for Portland while the team also gives Luke Babbitt and Jonny Flynn significant/semi-significant minutes? Well, of course the Clippers respond by giving up a huge game to JJ Hickson while being forced to ride Chris Paul to victory via usual amazing clutch performance. Oh, and Randy Foye. He was good too. It only takes one consistent (non-Chris Paul) 3-point threat for the Clippers to succeed with solid consistency, especially against a steeply falling defensive squad like the Trail Blazers, and we saw that tonight. We also saw less consistent effort on the boards, as illustrated by 12-7 offensive rebounding advantage for the Blazers (although the Clippers doubled-up the Blazers in terms of ‘team rebounds,’ which are possessions claimed off of missed shots that are tipped out of bounds, which I think hid some of the effort for the Clippers). And of course, as it always seems to be, the defense struggled.
For as many lobs as the Clippers enjoyed finishing tonight, they probably gave up twice as many good looks to the Blazers. Hickson got going early in a 4 minute stretch against a lineup featuring Eric Bledsoe, Randy Foye (and a bit of Nick Young), Bobby Simmons, Kenyon Martin, and Reggie Evans. That group was not a pretty watch. However, as Charlie Widdoes said to me when I mentioned that hideous 5-man on Twitter, that kind of lineup is tough to avoid with the limited bench options the Clippers have in terms of bigs/good swingmen. Can’t put much blame on Vinny for that one. But back to the main issue — you can (at least in part, and we seem to say this every night on this blog) put the defensive rotation struggles on coaching. Needless help from guards off corner shooters (42% 3P shooting for the Blazers tonight, and that’s from a below-average 3P shooting team in Portland), lazy closeouts and recoveries all over the floor, non-rotations on pick-and-rolls and simple dribble penetration, mediocre-to-bad transition defense. All business as usual, and a key reason JJ Hickson was able to dunk, lay-in, and open jumpshoot (it’s a word) his way to 29 points on 19 shots.
I’d also like to go in on an issue that had Jon Barry (and others, if Twitter yelling is any indication) fired up near the end of the game as Chris Paul dragged the team to victory — coach Del Negro benching DeAndre Jordan with what I’m going to estimate as 6 minutes to go in the game. Obviously DeAndre is a risk in terms of free throw shooting. But so is every big the Clippers have, let’s remember. The answer for the Clippers down the stretch, in the coach’s eyes, was to go with a Paul-Foye-Young-Butler-Griffin lineup that struggled to create points until CP3′s solo show late while being unable to do anything right defensively (outside of one clutch stop pre- final Jamal Crawford jumper, in which everyone was rotating well and recovering with quickness — if only the team would do that consistently).
Now, at first it seemed this was the plan until the final 2 minutes when the intentional foul prevention rule goes into effect. But the Blazers still hacked Blake intentionally, and he went 1/4 from the foul line during that stretch of Grab-A-Griffin action. It isn’t as if taking DJ out prevented the other team from taking advantage of the Clippers’ weak foul shooters. At the same time, Kenyon Martin as your big opposite Blake doesn’t much help in terms of the offense either — certainly not enough to make up for the defensive help DeAndre offers, and doubly not enough when you’re already getting killed on the inside by JJ Hickson, who had feasted on the defense of Blake Griffin and Martin all game long. And so we end up with a lineup featuring Blake as your only hope for rim protection, and 3 guards out on the floor with Caron Butler as your power forward. But back to that thing about the intentional foul rule — DJ didn’t come back into the game until there was under a minute left, rather than being inserted right at the 2-minute mark. And then he was brought in not just for rebounding and then taken back out to go offense-defense, but left in offensively. So now we can assume that he’s trustworthy enough in the coaching staff’s eyes to be on the court in crunch time on offense, right? Then why wasn’t he in the game for the entire final 5 or 6 minutes? The world may never know.
All of the kvetching about defense and the handling of DeAndre’s minutes late in the game aside, the Clippers did come out with the win. Surprise, surprise, it was due to the brilliance of Chris Paul. Finding Randy Foye for open looks (including a huge late 3), hitting that mid-range fadeaway with wonderful consistency, penetrating and finding Blake and DeAndre for something like half a dozen lob dunks on the night, and hitting a layup to give the Clippers a win despite the fact that everyone in the building knew that CP3 was going to be driving and shooting on a switched pick-and-roll. I don’t want to overlook the excellent shotmaking of Foye, or the improved movement and decision-making from DeAndre, Blake, and Caron on offense, or even some continued decent play from Bledsoe (although the numbers don’t show it) — but most nights we all know that the game is coming down to Chris Paul making things happen.
He made plenty happen tonight, and we’ll see what he and the rest of the team gets going tomorrow against a Utah team that just lost at home to the Kings.