December 26, 2011
Basketball teams don't fulfill or debunk expectations in one game, but it's impossible to have watched the Los Angeles Clippers' 105-86 win over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night without having come out of the experience somewhat disappointed. After a few weeks of Heatesque hype and two very impressive preseason games against the crosstown Lakers, the assumption was that the Clippers would arrive on the scene somewhere close to fully formed, throwing up lobs as an interstellar highlight jamboree and leaving an arena of converts in their wake.
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What we saw in Oakland was something a little more familiar, not to mention more complicated. Lob City remains under construction, with roles for new acquisitions still needing to be explained clearly and accepted by the players involved. At the same time, we saw a basketball team with championship potential and the most potent floor general in the league. The disappointment was real, but it may have also shown that the Clippers can be more than just fodder for SportsCenter.
The issue, at least for 24 minutes, was that the Clippers looked like a group that didn't really know what it was trying to do. Vinny Del Negro has never been the most popular coach in the league with any demographic — fans, front office, players, you name it — but he's nevertheless been handed an unbelievable opportunity to coach one of the finest collections of talent available in the contiguous United States. Luckily for him, that team also contains Paul, a player with a unique gift for creating offensive structure where none previously seemed to exist. The concept, at least on paper, is that Del Negro's reputation will be obviated by Paul's genius.
The first half seemed to fly in the face of that assumption. Paul appeared passive, more content to pass around the perimeter or throw simple entry passes than to run pick-and-rolls with Griffin or work his way into the paint with an endless succession of subtle crossovers and dekes. That surprising direction cast Billups as the centerpiece of the offense. The results weren't pretty: Billups forced shots with the confidence of a much younger man on his way to a 3-of-11 performance in the half.
Paul, to his credit, only spoke well of Billups after the game, saying that it's "so comforting" to have another point guard on the floor and claiming "the utmost confidence in Chauncey any time he has the ball." Yet whether Billups's profligacy was symptomatic of larger problems or the cause of them, a team that was supposed to be a high-flying trapeze act came across as something more like a puppet show. To compound those problems, they often had trouble getting the offense started in the first place: the Warriors grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the first half on just 24 opportunities.
Yet hype is not baseless, and the Clippers came out of the halftime break with a clearer sense of what they do well. Paul ran several picks-and-rolls with Griffin, Billups set up on the wing for open jumpers rather than monopolizing the offense, and DeAndre Jordan waited for dunks and rebounds, because that's all he's programmed to do (and block shots — he had eight on the night). There was structure, and it came about primarily because Paul took control. The Warriors defense stayed active but faltered, and the Clippers scored 64 points in the second half. To drive home the point, Paul locked up the game late in the fourth quarter with a series of plays in which he sized up his defender with an arrangement of moves to earn open mid-range jumpers. It was classic Paul, the kind of sequence that makes him a superstar worthy of David Stern's machinations. Suddenly, after a game that defied our expectations for the Clippers, it became abundantly clear why everyone wants so much from them. As Warriors coach Mark Jackson put it in his postgame press conference, "Chris Paul is very good."
What we learned most from this game, though, is that the process will be difficult, and not a matter of turning on a switch that turns every possession into a 24-second attempt to complete an alley-oop unlike nothing anyone has ever seen. They're a basketball team. More than that, they're one that young, scrappy teams like the Warriors will fight against many times this season. L.A. needs to figure out a way to keep the offense flowing from tipoff, find a capable third big man, and integrate Billups in a way that takes advantage of his point-guard skills without keeping the ball out of Paul's hands too much.
They seem to be taking steps towards those goals. Billups summed up their approach well in the locker room: "I think it's going to take us some time to kind of figure out where our shots are going to be, who likes it where. It's going to take time, but in the meantime, if we can just play hard and have a chance in the fourth quarter, I just really feel good about what we can do."
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It might take months, or even more than this season, for the Clippers' dream to materialize. But it's worth waiting, initial disappointment or not, because they hold so much promise in both style and production. In a hype-filled league, it can be easy to dismiss any high-profile team that doesn't immediately produce as expected. The raw material is there, though, and it'd be a shame to ignore it for the sake of hot sports takes and immediate opinions.
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