Five first-half minutes for Eric Bledsoe.
Four second-half minutes for Eric Bledsoe.
And against the Thunder in particular that didn’t seem like it made perfect sense.
Bledsoe is the Clippers’ best perimeter defender, but against Oklahoma City, his quality is less important than his style. The Clippers’ starting wings aren’t going to win any 40-yard dashes or cone drills anytime soon. Send them out to perform suicides and guys like Russell Westbrook will eat them alive. And that’s exactly what happened in the first quarter between the Clippers and Thunder. Westbrook ran suicides all over the court, powerfully, yet slitheringly making his way into the lane and getting both Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom into early foul trouble, a problem that plagued the Clips for the rest of Sunday’s 108-104 loss.
Bledsoe, though, can match Westbrook’s power. It’s no coincidence that when the Clipper backup point guard got his four fourth-quarter minutes, L.A. got out in transition more than it did at any other time in the game. He gets stops. The Thunder looked uncomfortable, partly because Bled manned the right side of the floor like Ed Reed – the same right side from which Durant was knocking down shot after shot in the first three quarters. He was multitasking defensively and it worked.
But the problem was early. And early, we saw no signs of Eric Bledsoe coming onto the court.
When the buzzer sounded at the end of the first quarter, Bledsoe had logged exactly zero minutes and the Thunder held onto a seven-point lead that felt like one of double digits. It was strange to see Westbrook play the way he did without any sort of active remedy to stop him. Bledsoe can stay in front of Westbrook. Heck – he has stayed in front of him.
Here’s a snapshot of Westbrook’s first quarter as the his potential antidote sat on the bench:
- 11:18 – Dunk off a pass from Thabo Sefolosha. (2 points)
- 9:40 – Sinks a two-point jumper. (4 points)
- 7:50 – Forces Blake Griffin to commit his second foul, sending Griffin to the bench for the rest of the quarter and contributing to his eventual fouling out late in the fourth.
- 7:43 – Fouled by Lamar Odom in penetration. Hits one of two free throws. (5 points)
- 5:01 – Sinks a layup cutting to the basket. (7 points)
- 3:51 – Drives to the hoop and makes another layup in penetration. (9 points)
- 2:24 – Lamar Odom gets called for the blocking foul (his third of the first quarter). Westbrook hits one of two free throws. (10 points)
- 2:00 – Hits mid-range jumper. (12 points)
- 1:35 – Makes another layup. (14 points)
Count those up. That’s four made layups or dunks in one quarter – unacceptable if you’re the Clippers. And that doesn’t even include the three essential fouls he forced, putting both Griffin and Odom in “foul trouble” territory for the rest of the game.
The first quarter defense wasn’t working. Blame some of it on the defensive rotations, sure. The Clippers weren’t moving well at all down low. Guys seemed to be heading to the wrong spots and getting caught out of position left and right. That occasionally happens with this team – actually, it occasionally happens with most teams – but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Clippers could have been better suited to keep Westbrook out of the lane.
Seven different times he got to the hoop and made something positive happen for his team just in the first period – and that doesn’t even account for his two first-quarter assists or the way that the Clipper defense was so worried about his slashing that they collapsed every time he went to the rim. And with all of that, Bledsoe rested.
Westbrook isn’t a very good player. He’s a great one, especially when he’s on his game like he was Sunday. Bledsoe isn’t his a cure to his brilliance. He’s just a treatment, a way of getting by and containing one of the most explosive players in the NBA. Realistically, though, the Clippers’ substitution rotations aren’t going to change.
We’re 62 games into the year. This is it. So essentially, it all comes down to one main question, an inquisition whose answer may determine the outcome of a hypothetical postseason series: If these two teams do meet in the playoffs (be it in the second round or beyond) can the Clippers stop Russell Westbrook with their current tandem of starting wings? Because it looks like those guys are the ones who are going to have to get the job done while Bledsoe sits comfortably on the sidelines.