LOS ANGELES — It was as dramatic a shot as Blake Griffin has had in his career. Down two with less than three seconds on the clock in overtime he took a step back both to create space from defender P.J. Tucker and to make sure it was a three, then put up a line drive that Griffin admitted “right when I shot it I thought it was flat, short, off, everything.”
It bounced up off the front of the rim and found its way in. It was the ultimate shooter’s roll. It sent Staples Center into a frenzy and gave the Clippers their eighth straight win, keeping them in the thick of a ridiculously crowded and high achieving Western Conference (the current seven seed Mavericks are on pace to win 59 games). After the game that shot was pretty much the only thing people wanted to talk about,
That shot also masked a lot of Clippers’ issues defensively.
Ones that make you question if the Clippers are really the contenders they believe themselves to be.
The Suns put up an offensive rating of 109.3 points per 100 possessions against LA Monday night, almost four per 100 higher than their season average. The Clippers defensive rotations were slow, particularly out to the three point line, leading to 53 percent of the Suns shots on the night being uncontested. The Clippers got lucky the Suns only shot 48.4 percent on the night, they missed a lot of good looks.
Then there are the questions about wing defense specifically — Eric Bledsoe put up a triple double (27 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds) by going right at J.J. Redick all night, every chance he got. In isolations, off picks, in transition, just every time they were matched up. The result was Bledsoe had 11 uncontested shots and only five with a defender within a couple feet of him. It’s been a weak spot all season for the Clippers and it almost bit them on Monday night at home.
“I wasn’t real happy with our defense tonight,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said afterward. “I thought we had a couple key stops down the stretch. It’s one of those games where you’ll take the win, it was neat for our guys, they were excited, but they knew. You could see it collectively right when I walked in (the locker room) on their faces: ‘Not my best,’ ‘Not my best,’ ‘We messed up,’ ‘I messed this coverage up.’” You could just feel it.
“And that’s a good sign for your team when you pull out a win and the guys still own up to that we have to do better.”
The win against a quality opponent does matter. The Clippers defense has not been terrible, it’s just been average (12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency) and that’s been good enough thanks to their offense. Also, it’s early, the Clippers should be building and evolving defensively toward what they will be later in the season. Nobody should expect any team to be near a finished product right now.
But Monday was a measuring stick game for the Clippers a quarter of the way into the season and the questions about this team, the ones from their slow start last month, still linger. The questions about the lack of depth and how that bench can tie Doc Rivers’ hands in matchups are still valid.
The issues had been masked of late. The Clippers had won their previous five games by at least 17 points. However, the only above .500 team among them was a Houston squad which that night was missing three starters including Dwight Howard. Los Angeles hadn’t been really tested during the win streak, they could just overwhelm teams with their athleticism and Chris Paul’s improved shooting.
They were tested Monday by a team that plays hard but small (allowing the Clippers to post up Griffin much of the night on his way to 45 points), a team that is going to have a hard time holding off a healthy Oklahoma City squad for a final playoff spot in the West. This is a good Suns team, a scrappy one, but not a team playing like the rest of the top seven out West.
“We didn’t play great. Our execution today…” Rivers said, his voice trailing off as he searched for a word he couldn’t quite find. “We had some things, even our guys were looking at each other. It was one of those games where we just figured out a way to win… and sometimes you just need to win the game….
“I can’t wait to watch the film, I’ll be happy and furious at the same time, because I know we can play better.”
They’ll need to. They have plenty of time to figure it out, but the Clippers still have a lot of questions to answer.