Clippers fans can breathe easy. Their team can still go 82-0. It’s probably not going to happen, but it was still a possibility after the Clippers pulled out an unnecessarily frightening 111-104 victory over the Sacramento Kings in their season opener Wednesday night at Sleep Train Arena. Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. The Clippers finished the game strong after a letup. Star sixth man Jamal Crawford scored the first two baskets of the fourth quarter and the Clippers were up by 15 points. What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything. The Clippers started making careless passes and struggled to defend in transition as the Kings made a flurry of three-pointers. Suddenly, Sacramento had a one-point lead after Rudy Gay hit a three and it was looking like the Clippers’ season might begin similarly to how last season ended with their epic playoff collapse against the Houston Rockets. But that Clippers team didn’t have Paul Pierce, who made a 10-foot fadeaway jumper to break a 100-100 tie and propel his new team to the victory with the Clippers scoring 11 of the game’s final 15 points. “That’s definitely a product of us being comfortable in those situations,” said Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who made a jumper and threw a lob to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk as part of the strong finish. “We’ve been together for a while. We’ve been in situations like that time and time again and we believe in getting stops and doing what we have to do to execute.”
2. Blake Griffin was unstoppable for three quarters. The first half was largely about Griffin showing the many ways he can score. His first-half baskets came on a 23-foot jumper, a cutting layup, a step-back jumper, a finger-roll layup, a turnaround fadeaway jumper, a 19-foot jumper, a length-of-the-court dribble and layup, a dunk, a jump hook and another dunk. It added up to 20 points on 10-for-12 shooting at the game’s midpoint. Griffin scored 11 points while playing the entire third quarter as the fouls started to add up for Jordan and Josh Smith, and the minutes appeared to catch up with him during a fourth quarter in which he missed both of his shots and scored two points. Rivers blamed himself for overextending Griffin before the fourth quarter. “When you do that it hurts you down the stretch,” Rivers said. “You don’t have the same energy and so I was kicking myself going into the fourth. I just kept saying, ‘It’s too many minutes in a row at how hard he plays.’ ” Griffin finished the game with 33 points on 14-for-20 shooting to go with eight rebounds and four assists.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul pressures Kings point guard Rajon Rondo in the first half Wednesday night in Sacramento.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Clippers forward Blake Griffin has his shot challenged by Kings center Kosta Koufos in the first half Wednesday night in Sacramento.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Clippers point guard Chris Paul makes a pass around Kings point guard Rajon Rondo in the first half.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan elevates for a dunk against the Kings in the first half.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins goes to the basket against Clippers forward Josh Smith in the second half Wednesday night in Sacramento.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, left, gives forward Blake Griffin a pat after he scored late in the fourth quarter against the Kings.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan reacts after being called for a foul during the second half of the game against the Kings.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Kings forward Rudy Gay, right, drives against Clippers guard Lance Stephenson during the teams’ 2015 season opener on Oct. 28 in Sacramento.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
3. Smith should give the Clippers the defensive-minded backup big man they need. Byron Mullens. Ryan Hollins. Spencer Hawes. Ekpe Udoh. None of the Clippers’ recent backup big men was able to affect a game defensively the way Smith can. He blocked four shots in his Clippers debut, including a couple by the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins. Smith made a negligible impact offensively, missing both of his shots and finishing with one point, but his defense is what will earn him a large role. Smith can back up both Griffin and Jordan and figures to play more than the foul-plagued 16 minutes he logged Wednesday.
4. Lance Stephenson did what he needed to in his Clippers debut. The starting small forward made a three-pointer, a midrange jumper and found Griffin for an assist in the game’s opening minutes, flashing his versatility. He didn’t seem to force anything and was visibly upset with himself after making a bad pass that resulted in a turnover, showing that he wants to get things right. “You’ve just got to play smart, be solid and don’t do too much,” Stephenson said. “We’ve got a group of guys that knows how to play, so the game comes easy.” Rivers might have provided a glimpse of how he intends to use Stephenson, who played 19 minutes but not at all in the fourth quarter. Those minutes mostly went to Pierce, who put them to good use by scoring eight points in the quarter, including the go-ahead basket.
5. There are some things to clean up. The defense that lagged in the fourth quarter is a concern, even though you have to make some allowance for it being the season opener. Championship teams usually show more consistency. “We played defense probably about 65% of the game,” Pierce said, “but we’ve got to be better, especially in the third and fourth quarters.” The Kings also had 12 offensive rebounds to the Clippers’ six and benefited from some fourth-quarter turnovers that flustered Rivers. “The things I will clean up are our offensive execution with the turnovers,” said Rivers, whose team committed eight of its 15 turnovers in the second half. “Those are inexcusable. A lot of them are unforced turnovers, and those are the ones we can’t have. It was one of our goals going into the game. [Sacramento] is a team that reaches, they gamble, so you can’t make gamble passes and you can’t keep doing it. I thought we did it throughout the game.”