PRESEASON IS A WRAP
The preseason is over. Finally.
But while the eight-game, three-week exhibition schedule that spanned more than 15,000 miles of global travel may have seemed exhausting, the Clippers and Head Coach Vinny Del Negro believe it was merely the start of a season-long process.
“You can’t shortcut time, guys being together, going through certain situations during the game or practice or shoot-arounds or different terminology, putting guys in certain situations in lineups, those things just take time for a team to grow together,” Del Negro said. “We’ve got a lot of growing to do and that’s the exciting part of it.”
Some of that growing was accelerated by the team’s weeklong stay in China, where they played two games against the defending champion Miami Heat as part of the 2012 NBA China Games. During the trip the Clippers combined training camp and game preparation with a hectic schedule that included a visit to the Great Wall, an NBA Cares event at a migrant school in Beijing and the first-ever fan appreciation day in Shanghai.
They battled jetlag, fatigue and injuries to finish 5-3 in the preseason, winning three games in a row to close out the slate. They played the final five games without offseason acquisitions Lamar Odom and Grant Hill, who are both nursing bone bruises in their knees, and remain without Chauncey Billups, who is expected to eventually reclaim his role as the starting shooting guard once he is fully recovered from February surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon.
“With the mix-match lineups that we had out there and the different substitution patterns and things I thought we handled the time we’ve had together so far pretty well,” Del Negro said. “You always want more time and you always want more things, but overall it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Still, Del Negro said he was happy with what almost every member of the roster showed at times.
“Bled [Eric Bledsoe] had his moments and Matt Barnes, I thought, and DJ [DeAndre Jordan], but everybody [played well at times],” Del Negro said. “I thought Ryan Hollins did some good things, Ronny [Turiaf] off the bench gave us good energy. It’s a total team effort. Obviously, Chris [Paul] and Blake [Griffin] are going to do their thing, but it was everybody and that’s the main thing. Caron [Butler] helped carry us for a little bit at times. That’s what a team’s about. It’s not one or two guys, it’s everybody has to understand and accept their role and go out and do it on a consistent basis.”
Among other things, Bledsoe showed his athleticism and why Paul said the young point guard was “killing people” in the gym all summer. He led the NBA in total steals (22) and steals per game (2.75). Jordan showed a revamped post game and was fourth in the league in field goal percentage (67.8%) and the only player in the top 10 with more than 36 attempts (40-of-59). Paul, despite missing the first two games while recovering from thumb surgery and another to rest on the front end of a back-to-back, showed why he is widely presumed the best point guard in the world, returning to the lineup to help trim the Clippers turnover margin and tally 21 helpers in his final two appearances.
The numbers, though, mean very little in what was just a long dress rehearsal prior to the main act, one that is quite possibly the most anticipated Clippers history.
Here is a brief look back at how the eight-game preseason unfolded:
Game 1 (Las Vegas, Nevada), Nuggets 106, Clippers 104: The preseason started with the first game on the Las Vegas Strip in more than 31 years. At the time it may have been thought this was the Eric Bledsoe game. Starting in place of Chris Paul (thumb), he scored 25 points with eight rebounds, six assists and five steals and made a game-tying reverse layup with 1.9 seconds to go. Denver’s Ty Lawson found a way to win it on the next possession with a tough layup of his own, but the Clippers, according to Del Negro, “did some good things” in their 2012-13 debut.
Game 2 (Beijing, China), Heat 94, Clippers 80: The atmosphere in Beijing’s MasterCard Arena was almost playoff-like. A slow start plagued the Clippers, playing their second game without Paul, and the Heat led by double digits for most of the night. It marked the second proficient shooting game for Butler, who went 5-of-9 for 16 points, and Griffin managed a team-high 19 after scoring just six in Vegas. After the game, though, Del Negro bemoaned the fact that the Clippers took a step backwards. They committed 25 turnovers and shot just 40.7% from the free throw line.
Game 3 (Shanghai China), Clippers 99, Heat 89: Paul made his much anticipated preseason debut on the team’s final day in China, giving the Clippers six assists and zero first-half turnovers. In addition to Paul’s first start and Jordan’s perfect shooting night (8-for-8), the game also provided the first and as it turned out only glimpse of what the reserve unit will look like with Jamal Crawford, Hill, Odom, Barnes and Bledsoe on the floor at the same time. Odom made plays, including two high-low lobs to Jordan, Crawford made shots and Barnes was disruptive defensively, helping blow the game open in the second quarter.
Game 4 (Los Angeles, California), Clippers 96, Jazz 94: While it seemed plausible that the Clippers would struggle three days after their return from China, and first home game, they overcame a sluggish start to outscore Utah by 16 in the third quarter and come back from 15 points down. Crawford, for the second time in four games, was handed the ball late in the game and took over. He finished with 18 points, including a driving layup past DeMarre Carroll to give the Clippers a two-point lead. Hollins erased the first chance the Jazz had at tying the game with a rejection of Randy Foye in the final seconds and Foye missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer to end it with five members of the Clippers bench on the floor.
Game 5 (Salt Lake City, Utah), Jazz 99, Clippers 91: Del Negro rested three starters (Griffin, Butler and Willie Green), choosing to start Turiaf, Barnes, and second-year guard Travis Leslie in their stead. Paul, who was looking to get back into game shape, played a preseason-high 36 minutes, including into the fourth quarter. Paul’s 17 points, eight assists, and four steals along with Barnes’ game-high 22 points stood out, but also worth noting was a “small ball” lineup that Del Negro used in the third quarter that featured Paul, Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes and Hollins (and later Jordan).
Game 6 (Los Angeles), Clippers 88, Warriors 71: Beginning the first game of a stretch of three in four nights, the Clippers overwhelmed the cold-shooting Warriors, playing without Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry. Jordan scored 18 points with 12 rebounds in 25 minutes. His numbers do not do justice to how much Jordan dominated the paint at times, scoring on six dunks, blocking shots, and ripping rebounds out of the arms of Jeremy Tyler and Festus Ezeli. Despite scoring just nine points in the fourth quarter, the Clippers won by 17, and led by as many as 28. After the game, Paul said the team will not have a problem scoring the ball, but the effort against Golden State was an example of what they can do when they get defensive stops.
Game 7 (Los Angeles), Clippers 97, Lakers 91: With Paul and Crawford being rested, Bledsoe had arguably one of the most overwhelming stat lines of the preseason. He scored 22 points, handed out 11 assists and came within one steal of a triple-double in 44 minutes. The Lakers played without Kobe Bryant (foot) and Dwight Howard (rest), but used a majority of their other key players for extended minutes, including Pau Gasol, who was on the court for 36. It certainly did not have the cache of a regular season meeting, but the first of five so-called “Battles of L.A.” still had its moments. Hollins and Robert Sacre got into a fracas and Griffin committed a foul that sent Metta World Peace to the floor.
Game 8 (Denver, Colorado), Clippers 106, Nuggets 94: In the preseason finale, Del Negro said everyone was available outside of Odom, Hill, Billups and Trey Thompkins (knee) and he treated it as such. The Clippers scored 93 points in the first three quarters and Griffin had his most complete game of the preseason (25 points, 11 rebounds and a “Lob City” exhibition). The starters played deep into the third quarter and the bench, even without two of its more high-profile members, outscored Denver 20-8 to start the second quarter. Crawford and Bledsoe made nine of their first 11 shots for the group and Hollins blocked four shots. After the game, Del Negro said, “I thought we were crisp in the first half and in the third quarter. We got a little stagnant offensively in the fourth quarter, but overall I thought it was a good effort for us.”