Blake Griffin snatched the rebound off a Joakim Noah point-blank miss and took off.
He broke left, in stride, speeding past his teammates. As he hit the 3-point line, he carved past Luol Deng and took a step into the paint. Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich approached to trap him, but it didn’t matter. Griffin had made up his mind and he was going to score. He split them with his last step and effortlessly laid the ball in.
It was that kind of night for the Clippers.
From that point on (3:45 left in the first quarter), Griffin and the Clippers controlled the game, en route to a 101-80 thrashing of the Chicago Bulls. They did what so few teams in today’s NBA are capable of: beating the Bulls at their own style of play.
The Clippers, not the Bulls, were the aggressors. They were the ones diving on the floor and playing the passing lanes. They were the ones dictating the pace. They were the ones deciding when and where shots would be taken, on both ends of the floor.
In an essence, this was their most complete game – from start to finish – of the year.
Many will say the Bulls were shorthanded, which is true. Their MVP and franchise player, Derrick Rose, is out until at least February. Their bench was decimated this offseason; they went from having arguably the league’s deepest team to relying on Nate Robinson as key offensive contributor. Jeez.
But that didn’t stop them from jumping out to a 5-3 record – albeit with wins against mainly bad to mediocre teams – and ranking second in Defensive Efficiency heading into the game. For the most part, these are still the Bulls of years past, at least defensively. They don’t have the same personnel, and are thus not as potent, but they don’t normally give up 100-plus points.
(Side note: The Bulls have now given up at least 100 points in three straight games. Before that, they had given up 100 points in just one of their past 21 games, including the 2012 playoffs. Weird.)
Point being, the Bulls may miss Rose’s tenacity and offensive creativity, but he doesn’t help in the paint and on the boards. The Bulls won the rebounding battle by four, 45-41, but got bludgeoned in the points in the paint, 48-36. Before garbage time in the fourth quarter, the disparity was even greater.
The Bulls’ dynamic frontline is used to physically dominating their opponents, but that held far from true in this matchup. Griffin and DeAndre Jordan looked like varsity big men playing a JV squad — swatting shots, finishing with authority, and getting their hands on any ball within their vicinity. It’s rare to see that happen to notorious workmen like Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, but the Clippers do a lot of things opponents aren’t used to.
In particular, Jordan terrorized the Bulls in the hustle categories, recording 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 7 blocks. What doesn’t show up in the box score are his rotations, his box outs, and his activity, swiping at dribble drives, stationing himself at the rim and making all the right reads.
So did Griffin, Chris Paul (who pickpocketed Kirk Hinrich a couple times), Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe; each of them had at least one steal. The Clippers’ defense was stellar, making the Bulls’ already average offense look anemic. The Bulls shot a measly 42 percent at the rim, compared to the Clippers’ mark of 75 percent.
Speaking of stellar play, the bench held its own again, with Bledsoe (10 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, +12 +/-), Barnes (13 points, 6 rebounds, +18) and Jamal Crawford (22 points, 3-for-5 on 3s, 7-for-7 FTs, +15) continuing to outperform the starting wing tandem of Caron Butler (5 points, +2), and Willie Green (4 points, +6).
Of course, the Clippers damage wasn’t just in the interior.
In a growing trend, Griffin was proficient from the outside too. He finished with 26 points, 10 of which came off five jumpers between 16-23 feet (he was also 4-for-5 from the free throw line). Griffin is now shooting 43 percent from 16-23 feet on the season, which is elite company. (For comparison, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge are shooting 41 percent.)
And we can’t forget Paul, who wasn’t particularly aggressive for his own shot, finishing with just 8 points, but had 10 assists to just one turnover.
It’s one thing to beat a team by playing to your strengths; that’s how teams win most of their games. It’s another thing to play as a chameleon, shape shifting into different styles of play and finding an opponent’s weakness… then crushing it.
The Clippers have shown, through nine games, that they’re capable of such a multifaceted game plan.
They ran the Heat out of Staples Center, and did so while playing big line-ups, including Matt Barnes at the 2. They out-executed the Spurs, making them look older and slower than they already are. And, in their latest victory, they outworked the Bulls, bludgeoning them inside and owning the sacred painted area.
Lob City has passed its tests so far, but their next four games will be telling. With a road trip featuring games in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Atlanta, the Clippers will show just how legit the talk of their contention is. It’s still early – so there’s no reason to overreact either way – but to say this trip doesn’t mean anything would be a fallacy.
Odds are the Clippers will at least split the brutal affair, going 2-2. They’ve already defeated the Spurs and Hawks, both of whom will be looking for revenge. But even when opponents prepare for these Clippers, it never goes as planned.
You can’t predict the timing of a Chris Paul pick-and-roll, an Eric Bledsoe steal, a Matt Barnes cut, a Jamal Crawford crossover, a DeAndre Jordan block or a Blake Griffin dunk.
The Clippers’ versatility and depth is their greatest asset. It’s led to seven wins and will unquestionably lead to many more.
Stats used in this post are from Basketball-Reference.com and HoopData.com.