Where were you on December 25th 2011?
The Los Angeles Clippers were in Oakland playing the first game of the season. The season was seven weeks late in starting because the NBA lockout had dragged on until finally the players caved. A 66 game schedule was ready to begin which was how the Clippers landed in Oakland on Christmas Day.
The Clippers beat the Warriors at Oracle. They beat them by 19 points, led by Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. Unbeknownest to Paul and Billups and Mo Williams and Blake Griffin and the rest of the Clippers crew, it would be the last time a Clippers team won in Golden State in the regular season.
In 2011 the Warriors were led by Monta Ellis. Steph Curry wasn’t the greatest shooter we have ever seen, courtesy of his ankles. On Christmas day in 2011, Curry missed every three point shoot he took on way to a 16% field goal night. Klay Thompson came off the bench. The Warriors had a barely capable Kwame Brown while the Clippers had a new point guard in Chris Paul.
Four years changes a lot of things.
Monta Ellis has been on three teams since then. Kwame Brown is thankfully retired. Klay Thompson is a valued starter.
On the Clippers side of things, Mo Williams has been with five different teams since leaving the Clippers. Chauncey Billups retired and Caron Butler is still doing his toughness thing, this year with the Sacramento Kings.
Times have changed for both franchises. The Warriors are the defending NBA champions.
The Clippers narrative is less glamorous, perpetually losing in the playoffs by giving games away. Chris Paul is no longer the Clippers best player. Blake Griffin has wrestled that title away from him and already he has had a monster start to the season, averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds, nearly shooting 60%. Those are all career highs, even his 76% free throw shooting, all of which makes fantasy players ecstatic. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of a big game, it is always the same thing. Where is Blake Griffin?
The Clippers are playoff contenders based on the talent of their roster and their coaching staff. They will have a good year, get into the playoffs, most likely the second round and then something will happen. They’ll have a 3-1 lead and blow it. In a tight game Chris Paul will turn the ball over and blow it. It’s the Clippers, so a self-inflicted wound is always in the wings.
Last night, against the best team so far this season with the best player so far this season, coached by an interim newbie in Luke Walton, the expectation was for the Warriors to roll over the team they hate the most. The Warriors last game was a 50-point beat down. Much was expected from them given the fact the Clippers don’t win in Oakland.
But a basketball season, if nothing else, is about maintaining consistency within the natural ups and downs of a long schedule. The big games, therefore, take on mythic proportions. So when the Clippers had a fourth quarter 9 point lead after a pair or Paul Pierce free throws, it looked as if the Clippers were going to be the first team to slay the beast and instantly rise up the ladder as favorites in the conference.
But wherever you go, there you are. The Clippers best player, Blake Griffin, entered the game with a little over six minutes left. The Clippers lead had dwindled to three points because Harrison Barnes went a little crazy draining threes, running the floor for dunks. After Griffin entered the game, the Clippers took two shots in two minutes, one by Jamal Crawford and a bad three by Paul Pierce. Then it was Griffin’s turn. He missed, got the tip-in to go. That was the extent of Griffin’s fourth quarter offense, 2 points. As for the rest of his game: he got a rebound after a hurried, for no reason, Draymond Green three which lead to an Austin Rivers layup. He rebounded an Andre Iguodala free throw miss. Those were his fourth quarter highlights.
It’s not to say Griffin didn’t touch the ball. He did. On more than one occasion he over dribbled then passed, taking himself out of the play. It’s been the biggest challenge of his career, how to carry his team to tough wins. He’s not a natural aggressor, he’s not selfish, he’s a team player and he plays with talent surrounding him. But the greatest of the greats recognize when it’s time to push it into another gear.
In the early years Griffin deferred to Chris Paul. It made sense. Paul was better. Now Griffin is better. Sometimes the heart doesn’t know what the mind has already accepted to be true. Griffin was being guarded by Klay Thompson or Draymond Green. If he wasn’t getting the ball the solution was simple. During timeouts say to Paul, “give it to me.”
Instead, late in the game, down by two, Paul took a ridiculously horrible three point hero shot. He didn’t even look for Blake Griffin who was wide open.
photo via llananba