It wasn’t pretty, but the Clippers defeated the Heat in Chris Paul’s return from injury first preseason game this season. The Clippers led early and throughout, a stark contrast from the bashing they took in their first meeting with the Heat. However, L.A. nearly blew its 17-point fourth quarter lead, only to hold off the Heat in the end. While the score wasn’t necessarily indicative of how each team played — the Clippers outplayed them by what seemed like more than 10 points — the Heat rested most of their rotation players (including a nimble Dwyane Wade, who sliced the Clippers up). Without further ado, here are some game notes:
- What a difference Chris Paul makes. He didn’t lead a heroic comeback or compile a triple-double, but CP3’s imprint was on this game from the start. The Clippers looked crisper on offense, with passes whizzing to open shooters and the team’s spacing returning to normal. People will note that Wade and LeBron James didn’t play regular season minutes, and they’re right. But neither did Paul or Blake Griffin. For a majority of the first quarter, while both team’s starters were primarily in, the Clippers looked like the better team – except when Willie Green playing (he was quickly subbed out for Grant Hill – I’ll get to this later). Any way you put it, the Clippers need Paul at full strength to compete with the league’s elite and tonight confirmed that.
- All that talk about DeAndre Jordan’s offensive improvement is real. He’s showed it in practices, he’s showed it in scrimmages and now he’s showed it in three straight games. Tonight, though, was something else. Jordan displayed his full array of moves, his patience in traffic and his new soft touch around the rim. For the most part, he dominated Chris Bosh inside (8-for-8 shooting). Bosh took him out on the perimeter on defense, where Jordan routinely struggles against quicker big men, but Jordan returned the favor by pulverizing the Heat inside. He still can’t shoot, but his deftness in the paint is noticeable. Whatever he did this offseason is working. While he’s no Hakeem Olajuwon – and will clearly never be – it doesn’t seem illogical to expect a few more play calls for him each game. His +15 +/- rating led the team.
- The Clippers are deep. There’s no denying that. I had my doubts, as some of their offseason moves weren’t to my pleasure, but their second unit has to be in the conversation for best in the NBA behind Denver. Eric Bledsoe has proven to be the team’s third- or fourth-best player, behind Paul, Griffin and possibly Jordan. And he’s a back-up.
- While I don’t buy Jamal Crawford’s ridiculous shooting, he’s making the extra pass quite frequently and playing better defense than expected. When he has the ball in his hands, though, wow he’s good. Those slick crossover moves are jaw-dropping and his ability to attack the basket and finish with a floater or pull-up is unique.
- Matt Barnes, once expected to be the 11th man, looks to be a solid rotation player. His off-the-ball movement, both on offense (cutting to the rim, spacing the floor and grabbing offensive rebounds) and defense (using his long limbs and anticipation to tip and steal passes), has been a pleasant surprise.
- Lamar Odom hasn’t turned back the clock into the LO of old yet, but his court vision and passing ability is still there and if he loses another 5-10 lbs. he may be able to take someone to the rim other than the defensively inept Rashard Lewis. He got embarrassed by Jorts (Josh Harrelson), who scored an and-one in the post then block Odom’s shot off a drive, which was arguably the most entertaining part of the night.
- Moreover, Grant Hill showed why him signing with the Clippers was arguably the most underrated move of the offseason. His defense on the perimeter, and even in the paint at times, is a joy to watch. He’s intelligent, knows how to move his feet and use his length, and even showed glimpses of his returning offensive game with a few jumpers.
- The Clippers didn’t have any perimeter stoppers until Bledsoe returned late last season. Now, they have three more than capable defenders in Bledsoe, Hill and Barnes. One of them needs to start. The line-up of Odom-Hill-Barnes-Crawford-Bledsoe (the likely second unit) is dynamic and versatile defensively, but will rely on a lot of midrange shooting offensively and will struggle on the boards or against any size. Of course, they will rarely play together as a full unit, but it’s good to understand how the pieces fit. It looks like Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins will be on the outside looking in on the rotation, which is probably a good thing for now.
- Blame the slippery floor. Or blame Jordan’s evolving post game. But Griffin didn’t have the best outing in the second go-round with the Heat. Sure, he had a double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) but it didn’t seem like the performance we’re accustomed to. He struggled to get open while being fronted and solely capitalized on the Heat’s lack of size and interior competence. Six of his boards were offensive – a sign of his effort and hustle, yes – but a stronger sign of Miami’s weakness on the glass when they play smallball. Once again, the Clippers killed the Heat on the glass, 49-36. Stats don’t always paint the picture of the game, and tonight Griffin was off. He’ll likely bounce back in the next game. The next player I’m going to discuss? Not so sure.
- Willie Green shouldn’t start. In fact, he shouldn’t even be in the rotation. I’m confident, just from what I saw in the Clippers’ scrimmage at the Galen Center, that Travis Leslie is more deserving of the spot playing time LA’s fifth guard will receive once Chauncey Billups returns. Green simply had a fluke shooting performance last season. At best, he’s an average shooter. Ironically, Green’s basically a poor man’s Randy Foye. He’s worse at defense, worse at decision-making and clearly a worse 3-point shooter. Anytime he’s on the court, the Clippers are at a disadvantage. Tonight he was 2-for-8 from the floor, had two turnovers (including dropping a pass when he was wide-open in the corner) and had the team’s lowest +/- rating at +5. Grant Hill – heck, even Matt Barnes – should be starting instead, sliding Caron Butler down to shooting guard until Billups is back.
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