The Clippers 8-2 start has the entire league shaking its collective head. With their last two victories firmly establishing their talent and maturity, the Clippers have evolved into a scary opponent. Here are five take aways from their last two impressive victories over the Bulls and Spurs…
1. Matt Barnes: who could have predicted Barnes would be picked up off the Lakers scrap heap as an unrestricted free agent, report for veteran’s minimum in the best shape of any player on the Clippers squad, then contribute in big wins over top tier competition (he even guarded Kobe Bryant effectively in the team’s first meeting with his former team). His 14 points on 5 for 8 shooting, 4 for 4 from the line, and 9 rebounds in 35 minutes (due to Caron Butler’s shoulder injury increasing his playing time) against the Spurs in their arena, following up 13 points and 6 rebounds against Chicago on Saturday night – to say nothing of his tough defense – makes one wonder just what the Lakers were thinking in letting him walk in the offseason.
2. The Clippers tough defense: Last year’s Clippers team ranked close to last in virtually every category, defensively, especially vulnerable to perimeter baskets on failed rotations. This year, the Clippers are a respectable top 15 and rising, with a top 5 ranking in field goal percentage. The Bulls shot only 39%, with the Spurs a full 10 percentage points under their average at 35%. Diondre Jordan is one of the main reasons as he’s matured and doesn’t commit silly fouls attempting ill-advised blocks. Jordan’s ability to hold down the middle allows the rest of the team to guard the mid range and get out on 3 point shooters quicker. Eric Bledsoe in the second unit is simply a defensive force, disrupting oppositions’ entire offensive sets the entire length of the floor. An effective strategy has been to pair Bledsoe and Paul on the floor simultaneously, resulting in steals and quick transition baskets.
3. Diondre Jordan and Blake Griffin’s foul shooting: OK, so they’re not Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford at the charity stripe; however, it is no longer a given that teams can simply foul the two big men at will (a-la Mark Jackson’s Warriors). Jordan’s entire mechanics have been retooled and his stroke is smooth and the ugly hitch from last year gone. After missing his first million attempts, his percentage has steadily climbed and will probably be over 60% or better by mid-season. It will only get better as he gains confidence. Blake has also improved his shot somewhat and is hitting them at a decent clip.
4. Blake Griffin’s mid range jumper: We saw hints of this facet of his game late last season and it’s obvious he worked hard in the off season pulling up for the 20 footer when defenses cheat and lay off to deny him a path to the basket. Indeed, he is now confident pulling up and firing (mostly at the urging of Chris Paul) and hitting them with enough regularity to pull his man further from the entry lanes. This results in Blake blowing past slower defenders for layups and dunks, as well as collapsing other defenders for kick outs to shooters on the perimeter. Jamal Crawford (and Caron Butler) is a huge beneficiary of Blake’s improved outside shooting as he will continue to get open looks from long range as Blake draws double or triple teams on drives.
5. Coaching: After getting the Clippers to the second round of the playoffs last year (and winning a bruising opening series against the Grizzlies), there were still Vinnie Del Negro skeptics who felt he didn’t deserve a chance to return. This year, he is proving them wrong with a vengeance. His disciplined, well-coached squad is now firmly among the NBA’s elite and has faced a brutal schedule to jump out to 8-2 and first place in the division. The two losses to inferior teams is still mentioned in interviews, meaning Del Negro is using those losses to motivate and improve his team’s energy and effort levels, resulting in 48 minutes of fight each and every night. Chicago offered a tantalizing trap opportunity, which the Clippers brushed off with a thoroughly dominating performance, followed up by a gritty, hard fought victory over the Spurs for a second time in 14 days.