‘Frothing at the mouth’ hatred against Eric Gordon forged his calming court presence
Seeking stability in a season featuring little of it, the Clippers have turned to a player who wasn’t on the roster until a month ago.
“I think he gives us a calmness when he is on the floor,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
Amid a rotation where playing time is constantly undergoing evaluation, the Clippers have needed little time to embrace the new face as part of the lineups most often closing out tight games.
“It comes down to trust, we trust him with the ball,” All-Star Paul George said. “He’s going to make the right plays.”
Kawhi Leonard scored 30 as the Clippers were able to survive Stephen Curry’s 50-point performance in a 134-126 win over the Golden State Warriors.
That player is Eric Gordon, the 34-year-old, 6-foot-3 reserve guard whose 89 fourth-quarter minutes since his Clippers season debut Feb. 14 are the team’s second-highest total in that span, surpassed only by George’s 104. The Clippers have outscored opponents by 47 points in those Gordon minutes, a plus/minus that is not only a team high but the sixth-best fourth-quarter plus/minus in the NBA since Feb. 14.
After 14 third-quarter points Wednesday against Golden State, Gordon played the final six minutes of the fourth quarter to finish off the Clippers’ vital, fourth consecutive victory.
“I’ve always been this glue guy, calming sensation to a team where I can go into a game and I can change the game and just different facets and know how to fit in,” Gordon told The Los Angeles Times. “Every team I’ve been on, good team, bad team, I’ve always been figuring out ways to fit in.”
The Clippers traded for Gordon believing he could provide their lineups with this sense of security. It is a role he feels eminently comfortable in, given the stakes — even amid the Clippers’ championship aspirations — don’t feel so weighty once you have played through basketball seasons surrounded, in fact, by security.
Before Gordon was a 15-year NBA pro, he was one of America’s top recruits, a guard built like a safety who could will the ball into the hoop. His verbal commitment to Illinois caused pandemonium. So did his decision to back out of his non-binding commitment and switch allegiances to conference-rival Indiana after the Hoosiers hired coach Kelvin Sampson.
Broadsided by fan backlash after the switch, Gordon spent his senior year of high school in Indianapolis accompanied by a personal security guard. When he arrived at Indiana, his security detail was expanded to two people, Gordon recalled Wednesday, saying Illinois fans sometimes attempted to approach him while he walked the Bloomington campus.
All of that was noise that reached a peak during Indiana’s road game at Illinois on Feb. 7, 2008.
The announcement of Gordon’s name pregame was nearly drowned out by boos from an Illini crowd later described by Indiana’s student newspaper as “frothing at the mouth with hatred for Gordon.” When Gordon jogged to midcourt for a traditional meeting of starters, Illinois guard Chester Frazier chest-bumped Gordon hard enough to push the Hoosier guard backward several steps. Hearing calls of “liar,” Gordon scored just one point in the first half. He would finish with 19 in a double-overtime Indiana win — one saved when Gordon’s three-pointer banked in to tie with 25 seconds left in regulation.
Also late in the game, ESPN reported at the time, beads were thrown at a section of fans that included Gordon’s parents. Gordon recalled Wednesday that for that game, four security guards had been hired to protect his parents.
The supreme self-confidence of Clippers coach Tyronn Lue bleeds into his players, fueling record comebacks from deep deficits.
The experience changed what he considered to be pressure. While being asked to space the floor, defend and complement Clippers stars George and Kawhi Leonard amid a title push carries plenty, it’s also not quite the same as living through a game he took that personally.
“In the NBA you got to fight through adversity all the time, from team to team, whatever situation on the court, it’s all about figuring it out and fighting through adversity,” Gordon told The Times. “And I learned a lot of that back in high school and college.
“In college, nothing was really going our way. We had a great team, they always wanted to fire the coach, they fired him and our season ended bad — and then the Illinois stuff. It was just good to have that experience.”
The Clippers are reaping the benefits in Gordon’s second stint with the team.
Given his long-range credentials, Gordon’s shooting threat would be the primary reason to keep him in late, but he has shot just 32% in the fourth as a Clipper, including just four for 18 on three-point attempts. But Gordon has been dependable in limiting his mistakes — 15 assists against only two turnovers — and found ways to elevate the larger group, including defensively. When Gordon is on the court in fourth quarters, opponents have made just 40.9% of their shots, the second-best mark on the roster. When he is off, opponents have shot 55%. That gap of 14 percentage points is the largest on-off swing on the team.
To open Wednesday’s second half against the Warriors, Lue plugged Gordon into the starting lineup void left by Marcus Morris Sr.’s ejection, and Gordon answered with four three-pointers coming from an average of 26 feet in the third quarter — the kind of spacing the Clippers crave to pull his defender that much farther from the basket, and away from helping defend stars George and Leonard, too. Gordon reentered in the fourth quarter with the Clippers holding a seven-point lead and played the final six minutes of an eight-point win.
“Just watching him and playing against him over the years, he just always played his role, whatever the team needed him to do,” Lue said. “He’s come in and told me the same exact thing, like, ‘Whatever you need me to do, I’m gonna do.’ And he’s fitting in great.”
Gordon isn’t the only newcomer to tell Lue that message of sacrifice. Gordon’s emergence as a closer has often sidelined the starting guard, Russell Westbrook. Yet Westbrook was again impactful in his 27 minutes, with 15 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers while staying disciplined with what shots he took against a defense baiting him to take uncontested jump shots.
“You think about Russ, you think about relentless,” George said. “And that was the imprint he put on the game.”
Multiple Clippers pinned the winning streak, and the increased comfort of rotation players Gordon, Westbrook and Mason Plumlee, who were all added at or after the Feb. 9 trade deadline, as the result of more practice time than usual during the past week. But that doesn’t explain entirely the turnaround, Gordon said. Two weeks after postgame comments following a loss against Golden State in which he placed the responsibility of a late-season rebound on the players, Gordon stood in the locker room late Wednesday and said a change in mindset had allowed it to become reality.
With consecutive wins during this week, the Clippers believe they’ve found the momentum that had been missing during their five-game losing streak.
George, too, echoed that now, “we’re playing for one another and we expect to win — that was the big difference.”
And they have felt a difference with Gordon’s calm in the clutch.
“I’m never afraid of taking a tough shot at the end of the game because there are going to be many more moments in the game in the playoffs or whatnot you’ve just got to be ready to knock down those,” he said.
In only one month with the Clippers, Gordon has already seen the toll of a five-game losing streak and the rejuvenation of a four-game winning streak. He keeps it in perspective. He has played through worse.
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