By Ben Golliver
The Los Angeles Clippers demolished the Houston Rockets 117-109 at the Toyota Center on Tuesday night, winning their second road game in two nights.
• All the elements (read: excuses) were in place for this to be a "schedule loss" for the Clippers. The second night of back-to-back road games. The second straight game without All-Star point guard Chris Paul. An energetic up-tempo opponent that needed a win to break a losing streak and plays well at home.
That script sounded good until the start of the second half, when the Clippers scored ten straight points to open the third quarter and then, a few minutes later, another ten straight points in a little more than sixty seconds. Two Rockets timeouts weren't enough to stop the barrage, which came so fast and from so many directions that the Rockets could be forgiven for looking dazed and confused.
Earlier Tuesday, we took a look at the Thunder's dominant play this year and noted that the Clippers have been right there with them step by step. Look no further than that 25-6 run over the six-plus minute stretch to open the third quarter to see why. It was about as effective and ruthless as January basketball gets in the NBA.
The decisive inside-out play was killer and the unselfishness that's become this group's trademark was in full force. Blake Griffin established himsely early, scoring in isolation. Then, Eric Bledsoe and Willie Green made the Rockets pay once they tried to commit extra defenders to Griffin. Then, it was Griffin's turn again. Just to mix it up, they got out in transition. At times, the Clippers looked like they were on a hockey-style power play given how fluid their passing was and how well they created and took advantage of open spaces in the Rockets' defense.
That all of this happened without Paul is something else.
• Grant Hill, now 40, made his season debut against the Magic on Saturday and played 16 important minutes for the Clippers in this one. Hill has been a pleasure to watch for decades (literally, not seemingly) and that hasn't changed now that he's back after missing roughly the first ten weeks of the season with knee problems. One of the last remaining questions left with the Clippers is how they will manage to find time for all of their talented players. Hill, in particular, could have trouble finding real minutes in the playoff rotation given the number of perimeter options available to Vinny Del Negro and how well Matt Barnes has played this season.
The good news for Hill, who finished with four points, two assists and a steal on Tuesday, is that he appears to trust his knees. Shortly after entering the game, he took a charge on James Harden while backpedaling rapidly. This was precise movement and he didn't think twice, contorting and sacrificing his body in a way you don't usually see from players who have lingering doubts about the condition of their knees. A few minutes later, he attacked an unsuspecting Rockets defense off the dribble, drawing free throws. It was another assertive, full-speed play when a less aggressive approach might have been expected.
Hill's real usefulness against the Rockets came when he ran some point forward late in the game due to Paul's absence. With Eric Bledsoe moving into Paul's starting spot, Del Negro opted to give Hill the task of initiating the offense for the Clippers' reserve unit. This might have been a process of elimination decision, as starting two guard Willie Green and gunner Jamal Crawford aren't particularly appetizing options as lead distributors. Using Hill as a stand-in play-starter kept Crawford in his usual role, designated scorer. He delivered in a big way, dropping a season-high 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including five three-pointers, in 29 minutes.
• One of the most commonly missed calls in the NBA is the extra step (or steps) during a transition dunk attempt. During a Christmas Day game between the Lakers and Knicks, Dwight Howard was called for taking a total of four pitter-patter steps before throwing down a dunk on the break. The reaction on Twitter at the time seemed to be a wave of total shock, before an acknowledgement that the call was correct, before a debate ensued as to whether it should have been called given that referees so often overlook the infraction.
On Tuesday, Griffin had a gorgeous highlight from start-to-finish. Using his quick hands to poke away a pass on the perimeter, Griffin gave chase to the loose ball at full speed, beating everyone to it as he eventually tracked it down near the three-point line. Without dribbling, he appeared to take three steps after securing the ball before launching into a two-footed take-off for a monstrous one-handed dunk. Forceful, graceful finish. Take a look.
Should the referees call this a travel? By the book, yes, although they have an element of plausible deniability given how quickly Griffin got to the ball, how smoothly he went into launch mode, and the distance he covered in the air (roughly 10 feet).
The no-call here made me wonder about a few different mental elements at play here from the referee's perspective.
First: it goes against human nature, even a referee's nature, to play the role of such an obvious spoiler. Big picture, who really gets hurt if Griffin uses an extra step to produce a highlight few other players are capable of reproducing? After all, the Rockets don't even bother to ask for the call. If the aggrieved party doesn't complain, or even notice the travel, does that make this a justifiable case of no harm, no foul? Should teams, then, aggressively campaign for travel calls in these situations as they do in other contentious situations, like block/charges or out-of-bounds deflections?
Second: is the risk of making the incorrect judgment call while running back in transition and becoming the center of attention and fan angst acting prohibitively on the referee's decision-making process? This dunk in particular was a bit of a bang-bang play with the referees not in ideal position to assess Griffin's steps because he turned defense into offense so quickly. Did they err on the side of caution and/or give him the benefit of the doubt because the blow to credibility in getting this type of high-visibility call wrong outweighs the possible benefit of calling it correctly by the book?
Third: are we certain that the referees intentionally look the other way in these situations? How many times have we all watched Griffin dunk by this point? For serious NBA fans and referees who work lots of games and review video tape, the answer is likely to be "hundreds." Whenever Griffin gets in the open court, the ending of the script is already written. The ball is getting dunked, the only questions are "How?" and "How hard?" Might both referees giving chase on this play be guilty of unintentionally checking out briefly as they anticipate the inevitable conclusion?
These travels in transition wouldn't be the worst point of emphasis for the league's officials. Players would catch on fast, no question. It wouldn't take more than a single dunk getting wiped out for Griffin (or any player in a similar situation) to remember to take a single dribble before getting into his launch on future plays.
Do these travels really matter? Many are likely to say, emphatically, no. But there's some slippery slope potential here, as all sorts of crazy feats are possible if three or four steps are allowed, intentionally or unintentionally. Bigger than that, there's a purity issue to consider, as obvious uncalled violations cheapen the highlight and detract from the excitement. Video via YouTube user Clipper Nation