It was improbable that I’d even make it into the arena. Until 24 hours before the game, I had no idea it was even happening. I had no idea a high school buddy of mine was in town and would suggest that we reunite at the Staples Center. I didn’t think I’d get out of work in time to make the first quarter. Most of all, I didn’t think we’d be able to buy tickets off some sketchy guy on Figueroa.
Surely enough, with less than half the first quarter in the books, I was inside the Staples center for my first basketball game there. And thank goodness, it wasn’t to see the Lakers. After scalping three tickets for $20 apiece, we were proud owners of nosebleed seats in the 302 section of Staples to see the Clippers play the Timberwolves. I’ve been to a handful of Kings games. I even went to the NHL Draft at Staples a couple years ago. But I hadn’t been there for a hoops game yet. What better night to go? I hate the Lakers and while I’d go to a game, I wouldn’t want to pay to see them. But the Clippers? Sure, I’ll rush out of work at 7pm, race downtown, park in my usual spot on Olympic right by the 110, and watch the Pacific Division leaders play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota was visiting, and I’m in. Sign me up for CP3/Blake against Rubio/Love any day of the week. If it were up to me, I would have actually preferred a game of two-on-two involving those four, and everyone else off to the side.
Even from some of the highest seats in the arena, the game looked great. The guys looked a little bit smaller, but it provided us with a birds eye view. I’m not an NBA expert, I’ve never played at a high level or coached in any capacity, but I know what I’m looking for. I also don’t have a ton of time to watch on TV, so I was extra motivated to really soak in the experience. Some things I was looking forward to: Rubio’s passing, Love’s rebounding, Paul’s dominance, and Blake Griffin’s…low post moves? Seriously. Of course I want to see the big guy dunk. But I already know he can dunk. I don’t know if he has an incontestable turnaround in the post. I don’t know if he has a quick step move along the baseline. And I don’t know if he can take a dribble into the paint and drop in a 6-foot hook shot whenever he wants. I do know that if he’s at least not on his way to developing those moves, there’s something wrong. Does Blake have what it takes to become a Hall of Fame power forward? Or is he just a highlight reel? I was eager to see.
Some other things I was looking for: Rookie Derrick Williams showing off his stuff, DeAndre Jordan being the sidekick to Blake, whether Michael Beasley would show up, if my mans Wes Johnson should even have a job, and if I really do look like Mo Williams.
I found my seat and took a look down on the court. No Love. Rubio was zipping around. Paul was sort of doing his routine. Blake was dominating. And because Love was on the bench with two fouls, Blake owned the first quarter. He had 18 points in the first 12 minutes. He was backing down Darko every time, turning, and forcing the ball into the hoop. Not as graceful or as skillful as Tim Duncan, but certainly more in control than Dwight Howard. Even if he’s not the smoothest guy with the ball in the post, he’s good enough to get a good, short look. For me, one of the reasons is that guys are afraid to get dunked on. I think instead of reaching in, trying to poke the ball away and generate a turnover, guys allow Blake to back down, turn, and shoot. If they swing and miss on the steal, by the time they turn to recover, Blake’s genitalia could be in their face. It’s not like defenders give Blake a cushion, because he’s strong enough to back down on his own, but from what I saw, he was given opportunities to make plays. And he made them.
Next up on my agenda was to watch Rubio. He was impressive, but I wasn’t wowed. I’m not being very fair, because I’m expecting Globetrotter-like passing from him, even though he’s just a rookie. Without Love in the game, the T-Wolves were forced to be an outside shooting team. Wasn’t really working. When Luke Ridnour is your 3-point threat, it’s not looking good. Meanwhile, Blake kept dominating. Rubio was okay. He’s got a ways to go as a shooter. But he is capable of running a successful offense. He moved around the court with and without the ball. He did a nice job of getting up the court, dribbling into the defense, and kicking out to the open guy. He can create. He just needs teammates.
Yes, I was impressed with the young guns Blake and Rubio. But what about the established All Stars, Paul and Love? I feel like they had weird games. Since I watched him at UCLA, I’ve fawned over Kevin Love throwing outlet passes. The guys is a true basketball player, among the most fundamentally sound in the league. He can shoot, pass, defend, and knows the game as well as anyone. But watching him, I was a bit thrown off. I was under the impression that he had McHale-like post moves. He very well may, but they weren’t on display during this game. He may have shrunk from the moment of going up against Blake. He might have been legitimately contained by a combination of Blake, DeAndre, and Kenyon Martin. Actually, never mind, K-Mart had nothing to do with it, as we’ll find out later. Love was playing with fouls, and with no strong outside gunners to take the pressure of him, I was left wanting more.
Speaking of DeAndre, he impressed me. Ironically, the two biggest dunks of the game came not from Blake, but from thunderous throw downs from DeAndre. Even though it wasn’t Blake, I still thoroughly enjoyed the dunks, and DeAndre is much more fit and in shape than I could have imagined. I still think he’s a pudgy, slow center out of Texas A&M. Turns out he’s a lean, floor running, rebounding player who’s an important part of a division leading team. Again, I’d like to see him develop some more traditional moves, but as young, athletic centers go, he’s a pretty good one, and I really enjoyed watching him play.
Wes…sorry. You’re not very good. I’ll always root for ya Wes, and what you did for Syracuse in your one year as an Orangeman was special. But as a pro…yikes. You played 18 minutes as a starter, and there were FIVE guys who came off the bench and played more minutes than you did. You can’t get your own shot, and even if you have an open look, it doesn’t look good. I hate to call you a deer in the headlights, but a couple years in now, you just look lost. Maybe a spark off the bench for a playoff team? Maybe. But not a key part of a contender. Sorry Wes.
People sometimes said I look a little bit like Wes Johnson. But I look a lot more like Mo Williams. It’s true. And the way Mo shot the 3 the other night, I’m cool with it.
At halftime, it was food time. Not ashamed that I got McDonald’s. It’s either that or some bull shit Staples Center burrito. McDonald’s is a known entity. Yeah, I’ll feel like crap later, but nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a bit more affordable, and I know I won’t get violently ill. If I have a burrito, all bets are off.
After my burger and fries, I got a call from my buddy. He snuck into Section 22, in the lower level. I went down to meet up, and couldn’t believe it. Security guards were at each section checking tickets. But in this section, there was a space to sneak up the stairs without the guard sniffing you. It was so simple, even someone with my increased level of shpilkies was able to walk right up calmly. The seats were fantastic. They probably cost over $100 face value, and we sat there for $20. Big win of the night.
The third quarter was kind of boring, so let’s skip most of it. All I’ll say is that like with Love, I was left wanting more with Paul. For the record, I believe that Paul is the best point guard in the league. And there were a few plays on Tuesday night that were just so effortless, it was mesmerizing. Floating into the lane and laying it in. Dribbling circles around JJ Barea and sticking the open jumper. Nobody does it quite like him. It’s not the lack of alley oops that left me wanting more. It was the lack of a fluid offense that threw me off. I wanted to see Paul do it all. Get his shot, get his teammates their shots, dribble, distribute, move, drive, kick, and score. For the first three quarters, he was solid. Not “top 5-7 player in the league” solid, but “top 2-3 point guard in the league” solid. It’s not like his team was up by 20. Through three quarters, the best player, by far, was Blake. He had nearly 30 points after 36 minutes. Huge, huge game for him.
What happened in the 4th quarter was pretty unbelievable. Derrick Williams started seeing the Clippers like they were wearing Duke jerseys. Michael Beasley started playing like Bob Huggins was coaching him. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were nowhere to be seen, thanks to a tour de force in coaching ineptitude being put on by Vinny Del Negro. It was a close game heading into the 4th, with the Clips up 3. At home, coming off the All Star Break, with Love having an off night, there was no reason whatsoever for the Clippers to lose. All they had to do was tread water with Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, and Eric Bledsoe for 3-4 minutes before Paul, Blake, Mo, and DeAndre came in to finish it off. Pretty simple plan if you ask me.
The first few minutes went according to plan. Some sloppy bench play, nobody really making any waves. But a few minutes into the quarter, the Timberwolves decided to make a run. And it had nothing to do with Rubio or Love. Rather, it was led first by Derrick Williams, and then by Michael Beasley, with a sprinkle of…Martell Webster? Oy vey. Thus far, I was iffy on Derrick Williams. The 2nd overall pick last year, I thought he was going to have some polished low post moves, and the mid range game of a young Karl Malone. Throughout the game, he effectively displayed his shooting touch, proving that he can hit the 20-footers with ease. It did worry me, however, that he was playing like a 2010 Kevin Garnett, settling for outside jumpers instead of trying to post up and make a move. But if his shot is falling, and Love is dominating the paint, it can work. Love was off and I would have liked to see D-Will take it inside, but when you’re a rookie staring down Blake and DeAndre, I understand the hesitation.
On this night, his resistance to go in the trenches didn’t matter, because his outside touch was so smooth. He took over the game in the same way he did during last year’s NCAA Tournament. Makes a 3. Draws a foul, hits both. Gets hit, makes jumper anyways, completes 3-point play. Two more free throws. Absurd 3-pointer. During that sequence, Blake was only on the floor for the first basket Williams hit. After the final basket in the run, Blake came back in. What the hell took Vinny so long? How many times did Williams need to abuse Kenyon Martin to put Blake back in the game? DeAndre was in the game, but not moving with Williams. Once Williams started pulling up every time on Martin, why not try DeAndre on him? Or, the simple answer: Put Blake Griffin in the freaking game! I will never understand why Vinny let Blake sit on the bench for so long. It really wasn’t that long, either. Not even four minutes. In the NBA, though, that’s enough time for a game to change hands. This one did. Vinny should have sensed Williams having the hot hand after he stuck the “and one” from 22 feet out. At that moment, you’re down 5, you can easily come back, you just need Blake to run around and keep Williams from getting open looks. Vinny’s stubbornness enabled Williams to score five more points before calling a timeout and replacing Martin with Blake. Inexcusable coaching. You need to be able to sense a momentum shift and an opposing player getting hot. Williams finished the game 9-10, including 4-4 from beyond the arc. How Vinny wasn’t aware of and reactive to his shooting prowess is baffling.
Coming out of the timeout, Rubio and Love didn’t enter the game. Adelman decided to taunt Vinny, going with a lineup of Barea, Beasley, Wesbter, Williams, and Darko. I like to think it was Adelman’s way of saying “Vinny, my bench is going to pull ahead of your bench, and then my bench is going to beat your starters, because I’m smarter than you.” That’s exactly what happened. By the time Blake came back in, along with Butler and Mo, it was over. Williams had done the damage, and the Timberwolves were athletic enough, hungry enough, and smart enough to hold the lead. Except they wanted more.
Williams, while remaining in the game, passed the torch off to Michael Beasley. What a strange player Michael Beasley is. He’s a former #2 overall pick. He was a dominant collegian. He’s been, at times, an excellent pro. He has all the tools one needs to succeed in the NBA. Yet, he’s always on the trading block, in and out of the lineup, and generally wasting his abilities. Not on Tuesday, though. He took over for the second half of the 4th quarter. The first three Minnesota possessions after the timeout were short Beasley jumper, Beasley mid range jumper, Beasley driving lay up. 90 seconds later, he scored 7 more points in a 3-possession span to officially bury the Clippers. While amazed at the performance, I was frustrated that Beasley can’t do it regularly. He should be an All Star caliber player. He can shoot the deep ball. He can shoot mid range. He can drive to the basket, draw contact, and finish. He has a turn around game. He can slide along the baseline. He can pull up and stick it. If he gave a crap, he could be a serious player. At worst, a third option on a contender. Only if he hits his ceiling though. I’d love to see him have some sort of renaissance and turn himself into a top tier swingman.
Mix in some uninspired offense from the Clippers that led to bricks by Butler, Blake, and Paul, and the Timberwolves were oddly running away with the game. I couldn’t believe that Paul wasn’t doing anything about it. It was alarming. Dominant all night, Blake started settling for jumpers, and Butler was just chucking. There was no two-man game with Paul and Blake. There was no Paul driving on Barea every time down the floor. There was no Blake hammering Darko. Seriously, what was going on? It was about as disjointed as the Celtics offense with Antoine Walker at point-forward. They were lazy, passive, and content to lose. In this condensed season, I completely understand teams mailing in some games. You can’t win them all, and if you sense your guys don’t have it that night, might as well save up for the rest of the week, as you’ll have five more games in the next seven days. It’s not a sign of weakness, just a way of adapting. If you’re not going to be a top seed, might as well just coast, make the playoffs, grab whichever seed you need, and go for it in the spring. That being said, the Clippers had no business folding on Tuesday. They just had a 4-day break. They’re at home against an inferior team. They’re trying to win a division and have home court advantage. So I won’t buy that they mailed it in. That’s what makes it so troubling, though. It’s possible that the Clippers are just star-driven, relying on Paul and Blake to carry them in close games. That’d be great, except that Paul wasn’t getting to the basket and Blake wasn’t doing his whole wrecking ball routine. Their offense was stagnant and ineffective. Minnesota was poised, fluid, confident, faster, and tougher. If they make the playoffs, I don’t think the T-Wolves will win a series, but they’ll sure be a tough out.
Once Beasley’s decided to take it easy and pass the buck off to Martell Webster (who wasn’t as terrible as I thought he’d be), it was over. Fans were leaving. Some chanted “Fire Vinny.” It was pretty quiet overall. Actually, it was quiet the entire 4th quarter. No chants of “De-fense!” No cheering or outward vocal support of their team. Just not a very strong showing from the Clippers fan base. Makes you wonder if they’re actual fans, or just people who either 1) dislike basketball and/or 2) dislike the Lakers and decided to do the trendy thing this fall after the Chris Paul trade and become a Clippers fan. The best fan I saw all night was rocking an old school Buffalo Braves jacket. Other than that, nothing positive coming from the Clippers fans.
After a quick beer at the ESPN Zone after the game, it was time to head home. First basketball game at Staples in the books, and an interesting one for sure. Live hockey is unquestionably more entertaining than live basketball, but it was still a pleasure to watch some elite players up close and personal. The MVPs of the game had to be Williams and Beasley, who each had 27 points and played 30 minutes or less. In addition to those two going off, I got to see Ricky Rubio pass, Blake Griffin beast, and Chris Paul slice. Not as much as I hoped, but I’ll take it.
Whether I’m back at Staples again this season for a hoops game remains to be seen. But I’ll be back next season. Question is, given his performance on Tuesday night and his inevitable choke job in the playoff, will Vinny Del Negro be joining me?