Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Clippers' player procession falling in line
By Kevin Arnovitz
With 56 games under his belt in Los Angeles, Rasual Butler is a relative mainstay for a Clippers team that's seen a procession of players shuttle in and out of the locker room over the past week. Surrounded by new teammates and an interim head coach searching for only his second win in seven tries, Butler drained the big shot Monday night. The swingman's silky 3-pointer from the left corner pulled the Clippers even at 87-87.
"It was a pick-and-roll," Butler said. "Baron [Davis] showed shot. My guy rotated onto Baron and he kicked it to me in the corner."
The shot revived a Clippers' team that had surrendered a halftime lead after a barrage of turnovers -- seven alone in the third quarter and another five in the fourth quarter prior to Butler's heroics. Fortunately for the Clippers, their fourth-quarter defense mitigated the damage, as they smothered the Bobcats' half-court offense with persistent pressure. Charlotte managed only 20 points on 24 possessions in the final period. The Clippers pulled away and notched a 98-94 win.
"I loved our defense in the last seven minutes of the game," Clippers head coach Kim Hughes said. "It was led by Baron Davis. He had a couple of big blocks. Guys were diving on the floor. The guys who weren't playing a lot of minutes in the first half came in and gave great effort. Deflections were up and we really rebounded the ball well."
The Clippers controlled the glass, outrebounding the Bobcats 48-34. Chris Kaman was central to the team's solid work on the boards. He racked up 13 rebounds to go along with his 18 points.
It was a remarkably coherent showing for a Clippers team that practically needed place cards to find their spots on the floor. Integrating new players into a lineup in the middle of a basketball season can be daunting. NBA teams spend months honing their offensive sets and defensive schemes. Each screen, pass and perimeter rotation is predicated on rhythm and a well-timed sense of where teammates are going to move. Many of the NBA's marquee names dealt at the deadline -- Antawn Jamison, Marcus Camby and Kevin Martin -- took some lumps in their respective debuts.
Few teams experienced as much player movement as the Clippers over the past week. They turned over 25 percent of their active roster, shipping out Camby, Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair, and getting back Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake and Drew Gooden in return. Blake underwent a baptism by fire, starting at point guard in place of the injured Davis in his first game with the Clippers on Wednesday.
On Monday night, Outlaw and Gooden made their inaugural appearances as Los Angeles Clippers, and both newcomers impressed. Gooden scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 27 minutes and played crucial minutes in the game's closing minutes at the power forward spot -- something that was by design.
"I told [Gooden] I was going to play him," Hughes said. "We need a big who can score. He's been around a while, is savvy and knows how to play."
Gooden was regarded largely as salary filler in a trade that sent Thornton to Washington and Telfair to Cleveland. Many reports maintained that the veteran would never suit up for the Clippers and that a buyout of his contract was pending. Contrary to those rumors, the Clippers announced they planned to hang on to their big man to fill the void left by Camby, and Monday night they handed him big minutes.
"This is basketball at the end of the day -- different team, same game," Gooden said. "I'm a competitor. Once I step foot out on the court, I don't care who it's for, I'm going to compete."
Outlaw made not only his first start as a Clipper but also his first appearance in an NBA game since Nov.14 after being sidelined with a stress fracture in his left foot. On the floor, Outlaw appeared to be the least oriented of the three new Clippers, but his stroke was pure. The former Trail Blazer converted 4-of-6 from the field, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, and finished with 10 points.
"I was nervous a little bit, but then I got over it," Outlaw said. "I just had to make sure to relax and follow through with my form."
A wiry forward who's all arms and legs, Outlaw has seen time at both forward positions during his career. Against a big Charlotte lineup, Hughes elected to use him at the small forward spot. Outlaw credited Butler, the Clippers' starter at that position, with showing him the ropes in the Clippers' offense.
"Butler worked with me after practice," Outlaw said. "His talking to me about the plays and helping me with the transition definitely made it easier."
Running the point might be the most challenging acclimation a player has to make midseason. Blake has been cramming, diligently learning the team's numbered plays and defensive patterns.
"They give you the book and they give you the DVDs," Blake said. "The plays you watch are labeled. It's visual learning. You then watch the action and learn on the go."
That task was made easier Monday night as Blake moved into the backup role upon Davis' return. Blake excelled on the second unit, compiling seven assists in 15 minutes of action. At one stretch in the fourth quarter, the two point guards played alongside one another for a stretch, something Hughes said he plans to do on a regular basis.
Aside from their first winning streak in over a month, the most reassuring element for Hughes and the Clippers moving forward is a renewed sense of stability. After a tumultuous few weeks during which the team saw a coaching change, a revolving door of players, the departure of their defensive linchpin and a spat of minor injuries, the Clippers can settle in for the final third of their season with some degree of certainty. Hughes was asked prior to the game how it felt to have a fully stocked shelf of talent.
"Shocking," Hughes responded wryly. "It's nice. The drill is finding the chemistry."
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.