One of the perks of following a team in the playoffs is the unprecedented access. Facing the same opponent over the course of a seven-game series on a national stage just gives you a look into the core of an organization that you can’t get during the regular season — and especially not this one.
From the top down, you see how they prepare and how they adjust — to the pressure on the floor and the attention off it. How they win, if you’re lucky, and how they lose.
To Clipper fans, this knowledge comes mostly secondhand.
But after witnessing near-total roster upheaval and a regular season that flew right by, Clipper Nation got to experience the perks — to see the value of time and focus to digest what’s going on.
The first and second rounds were a contrast in style and results. They were packed with extenuating circumstances, just like every other playoff series, ever. And through it, we learned things. Here are five takeaways from three weeks in the spotlight:
1) The stars are people, too.
We come to know superstars the level of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as caricatures of themselves. They are superheroes from Lob City (brought to you by Kia), Point Gods, and floppers capable of telling Uvo to play funk. For a team that felt decidedly “thrown together,” it was tough to get to know them beyond their individual on-court personas.
But in the playoffs, Griffin and Paul became human beings to the national audience. And they did so as teammates. After the amazing comeback Game 1 win in Memphis, the neophyte and the playoff vet took the podium together, in front of that unmistakable NBA Playoffs background.
After they pulled out an 87-86 win in Game 3, three-year old Chris Paul Jr. gave us The Blake Face. Two nights later, Nick Young welcomed Blake to the podium after Griffin went for 30 points on 15 shots to give the Clippers a 3-1 series lead.
It was nice to have the opportunity to see them go through this process together. If they do, indeed, grow as a team from this playoff run, it will be as much because of the the experience they shared as teammates as anything they learned from the Spurs passing and shooting them to death.
2) Eric Bledsoe, Eric Bledsoe, Eric Bledsoe.
What else can we say about him? When he was on the court, the Clippers scored 115 points per 100 possessions, and gave up 100. When he was on the bench, they scored only 90, and gave up 105.
He led the team in player efficiency rating in the playoffs. (The number that measures offense and basically ignores defense, where he is their best player.) In 11 games, against two of the best defensive teams in the league, the leader was Bledsoe (22.6) — not Blake Griffin (21.1) or Chris Paul (20.4).
This is why you don’t trade him for 10 cents on the dollar at the trade deadline. Bledsoe was the revelation of the playoffs to everyone, except for his coach (more on that below). He arrived, and in doing so has become the key to next season. He could be an ace trade chip or a starting off guard in a hybrid backcourt that could be absolutely devastating. Even a terror off the bench, if used properly. No one wants to lose the second Eric in two years, but at least his value has returned to where it should be, and the possibilities are tantalizing.
3) Worth tracking: Blake Griffin and the midrange jumper.
Contrary to popular belief, Blake Griffin’s jump shot was a major weapon by the end of the season. Over the last two months, he was taking about four jumpers between 16 and 23 feet a game, and knocking down 43 percent of them — right up there with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, and not far behind Kevin Durant (46%).
He was becoming more decisive with his actions, so even if he was still releasing the ball on the way down, he was shooting in rhythm and keeping defenders off balance.
The same could not be said of his play against Memphis. He took 10 shots from 13-23 feet in the entire seven-game series. Grizzlies bigs blanketed him anywhere he went inside the 3-point line, but he also didn’t do himself any favors by shying away from making contact on screens to free himself in the pick-and-pop game. The physicality of the series was clearly disrupting his flow — it looked like he felt obligated to initiate contact rather than play his game.
The Spurs made no pretensions about wanting to play a physical series, so he had to adjust. In Game 1 alone, he had more open looks from the free throw line than he did he whole Memphis series, but he rarely looked to shoot. Over the course of the four game sweep it became evident that San Antonio wanted to give him the jumper, and he didn’t want to take it. He wound up taking 20 in the series, but never looked committed to punishing the Spurs for giving him space.
It’ll be worth watching next season how he, and the offense, prioritizes his jumper. Because if he can set a few solid picks, he should have plenty of open looks.
4) Changing of the guards?
This season started with Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams and Randy Foye (probably in that order) battling for minutes alongside Chris Paul. It ended with Bledsoe and Nick Young looking like the ones with a future in L.A. Over the course of 11 playoff games, clarity that had eluded the Clippers backcourt situation all year may have emerged.
Foye might have played himself out of the Clippers’ price range with his sizzling second half, but after a subpar playoffs, who knows. Billups may or may not be back, same with Williams. Neither figures to be in the long-term plans. A three-guard rotation of Young, Bledsoe and Paul looked like a workable arrangement going forward.
Eric Bledsoe had a spectacular +40 playoff plus/minus, but Young was an even better +45. Depending on what kind of money Young commands — he reportedly wants to come back, but is he worth the mid-level of about $5 million per year? More? Would he sign for less? — they could really use what he brings.
At 6’6″, he has the size they desperately need on the wing, and he showed he’s perfectly capable using his length to contribute on D. He’s a career 39 percent 3-point shooter that made 17 of 33 (52 percent) in the playoffs, 89 percent from the line, and 43 percent from the floor. He is a shooter, plain and simple, but he can become a go-to scorer for stretches if you’re forced surround him with specialists to overcome deficiencies elsewhere on the floor. That kind of versatility has a place, and it should make life easier for Neil Olshey as he builds next year’s roster.
5) If it looks like a duck…
Vinny Del Negro gave Eric Bledsoe fewer minutes (17 per game) this playoffs than everyone but Bobby Simmons (32 total minutes, 22 of which came in a Game 2 start against Memphis) and Trey Thompkins (didn’t play). Let that sink in.
Prior to Game 3, with two home games looming and the series far from decided, Del Negro was asked if he might shuffle the starting lineup in light of his reserves’ — and especially Bledsoe’s — overwhelming effectiveness. His answer was simple and dismissive: “No. I wouldn’t do that to them.”
A few minutes later, he made a point to at least acknowledge the merit of the question, but suggested that he had a plan. Sitting at his desk before the game, he held up four fingers and silently mouthed “fourth quarter,” with a look that said it was all under control.
As it happened, his “plan” involved keeping his playoff star on the bench for the entirety of the third quarter, in which the Spurs went on a 24-0 run to erase a 33-11 first quarter deficit and take the lead. By the time the 4th quarter came, the game, the series and the season were effectively over.
Yet again, the flaws of his approach were on display for everyone to see. And it should come as no surprise that someone so resistent to change would be so ill-equipped to make adjustments on the fly.
Even though he was charged with defending him, D.J. Foster’s classic closing argument from the Trial of Vinny Del Negro summed it up perfectly: “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.”
It’s a duck.