The Los Angeles Clippers swagged their way into Oracle Arena, acting like they owned the place. They’re a cocky team, led by the assured Chris Paul (born leader) and the petulant Blake Griffin (bully dunker), and after they toyed with the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day before crushing them in the final quarter, who could blame them?
When they found out the Warriors’ starting center, Andris Biedrins, was out (due to “flu-like symptoms”), it probably didn’t make much of a difference to Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the rest of the Clippers. It certainly didn’t upset the fans in attendance, those watching the game on television, or the Warriors themselves.
It’s not about who starts the games, it’s about who finishes them … right? Maybe if you’ve carved out some weird, rare niche like Jason Terry. But starting matters to the vast majority of NBA players, and it certainly seemed like it mattered to Ekpe Udoh on Tuesday night. He played as if he’d been waiting his entire life for the moment, even though he started 18 games for the Warriors last season under Keith Smart. Mark Jackson’s been much harder on Udoh than perhaps any other player on the team, at least publicly, and Udoh had to work hard for an opportunity that only fell into his lap because Biedrins couldn’t play — both figuratively AND literally this time.
The Warriors’ bench (or “Dubstitutes” as some call them), have been more fun to watch this season than the starters, by and large. Not because the bench boasted anyone who can knife through defenses like Monta Ellis, combine long-distance shooting and stylistic passing like Stephen Curry, or rack up double-doubles like David Lee. The bench gained fans because they played the way this team should all the time: aggressively, passionately, and — most importantly — with palpable toughness.
Udoh brought that mentality to the starting lineup for the first time this season. While the reserves weren’t the reason why the Warriors won (although Brandon Rush, Nate Robinson and Dominic McGuire all had their moments), the starters were, in part because they weren’t intimidated by the Clippers. The Warriors were actually helped by a set of referees who let a lot of contact go uncalled — a lot of it by Udoh, even if he got screwed on a foul call that looked like a clean block of Griffin — because the Warriors took advantage by setting the tone with rare aggressiveness on both sides, at least for them (well, besides running offensively, which they didn’t do much of). They weren’t the “Bad Boy” Pistons by any means, but compared to the way they usually cruise at the start of games with Biedrins doing whatever the hell it is that Biedrins does, the Clippers had to feel like they were playing a different team. They may have thought they’d easily pull away from Golden State at the end of Tuesday night’s game, but the Warriors held strong for 48 minutes.
Many are responding to this win with something along the lines of, “Well, that’s what happens when you don’t play 4-on-5.” While Udoh’s career-high 19 points and high shooting percentage were the most noticeable numbers in the box score, the key play of the game wasn’t an Udoh score, although he was on the floor with the team’s best lineup … almost to the very end.
With the Clippers leading 97-95 with under 2:30 remaining, Curry passed it to Lee on the left elbow. Lee dribbled to the top of the key and missed a jumper short. The rebound bounced off the fingertips of Reggie Evans and Mo Williams, then Randy Foye deflected the ball into the hands of Udoh. Udoh cleared it to Ellis, who held the ball for a few seconds, then passed it to Lee on the right baseline, who quickly moved it to Curry at the top. Curry drove down the middle of the key, and threw a pretty one-handed pass to his left to Rush, who made the three.
The Clippers wouldn’t score again. After a Paul miss, Ellis came down and scored on a pretty floater (Oracle exploded at that point), as Udoh and Foye knocked knees and sent Biedrins’ replacement to the floor, clutching his left knee. Luckily, Udoh, who was icing both knees after the game in the locker room had x-rays that came back negative. As long as the swelling in his left knee doesn’t get too severe, he should probably be fine.
Here’s what Udoh had to say after the game. Great response at the end, after Scott Ostler followed up my question about Lee with one about what dirty tricks, if any, Lee’s taught him (hint: the photos I grabbed from the video that you see in this post are from Udoh’s reaction to Ostler’s question).
Here’s what Jackson had to say about Udoh (yep, over 5 minutes — the “Nightmare” was the talk of the night). The Warriors head coach was noncommittal about moving Udoh to the starting lineup, but it’s hard to know what would keep Jackson from making that change now. Then again, with a “flow coach” anything is possible.
And in case you missed it, Dave Chappelle stopped by the locker room to meet Stephen Curry and others, and I got video of that encounter as well.