Longtime remembers might remember that a couple of years ago, 213Hoops ran player grades after every single Clippers game. Ah, the benefits of not having other responsibilities. I lack the time to do nightly player grades all season long now, but I’m going to give an honest effort to keep it up throughout the Clippers’ playoff run. Without further ado:
- Russell Westbrook: C+. Let’s just get the hardest grade to calculate out of the way first. How the hell do you grade a player who was as stellar and impactful on defense as you could have possibly imagined and as inefficient and selfish on offense as you could have possibly imagined? I don’t envy Grizzlies writers who have to assess Dillon Brooks every game. I don’t think I have to explain much here–you all know exactly how hideous the offense was and exactly how great the defense was. If you want to give him an F because 3-19 is irredeemable, I get it. If you want to give him an A because he’s got spunk, god damn it, I get that too. I can’t go much lower or higher when considering both ends of the floor. I’ll say this, though: while we know Russ can have big offensive games, he can be 10x better on offense than he was tonight without doing anything but deferring to teammates and not forcing bad shots. Even being quiet on offense while defending at this level would be a great basketball player. But being destructive on offense offsets a lot of the good work he did on defense.
- Eric Gordon: B+. Gordon had a much quieter night than Westbrook, but he avoided doing harm, too. He had 12 first quarter points as the Clippers built their early lead, and finished second on the team with 19. Did missing back-to-back threes late hurt? Yeah, but they were good shots, and he hit the third one to bring him to 3/7 from deep on the night. While not being one of the defensive players of the game like Russ or Zu, Gordon was still part of an effective scheme on that end and handled a matchup against a hall of famer essentially every possession he spent on the court tonight.
- Kawhi Leonard: A. I’m tempted to leave Kawhi a little headroom, since I don’t think this was quite his best game, but how could it be anything but an A? An efficient 38 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in 42 minutes, tackling a variety of defensive assignments throughout (he started the game on Deandre Ayton and ended it on Kevin Durant), and emerging as the best player on the floor as a solo star lined up against Phoenix’s all-stars. Maybe this was a 96% A and the 98%, 99%, and 100% As are still to come in this series. But it was still an A, and the Clippers will have a shot in any game where he is the best player on the floor.
- Nico Batum: C. I think Nico is going to have a thankless job in this series. They need him out there defensively against Phoenix’s starting units, which are the shifts that the Clippers are most likely to lose, and then whenver the Suns rotate bench players in, Ty Lue will have to replace Nico with one of his bench guards that offers superior firepower so that the Clippers can go on runs of their own. The result is a quiet 1-3 shooting night for 3 points where the Clippers went -8 in Batum’s 21 minutes. He’s shuttling across assignments vs Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, so you can only blame him so much. But I would love to see a less anonymous Nico in future games, especially shooting the basketball.
- Ivica Zubac: B. Zu probably had an A first half coupled with a C second half, as he put up 10 points and 11 rebounds before the break and anchored a Clippers defense that kept Phoenix’s high-powered offense mostly in check. This is a good matchup for Zu, because Phoenix’s slower, more deliberate, more mid-range focused attack plays into his strengths as a slower, stronger, positioning-based big. He had 10 points on 5-6 shooting in the first half and only got one real shot attempt in the second half (his other 2nd half FGA was a missed tip-in on a putback). The Clippers need to get the ball to him more as they attack the Suns’ defense.
- Bones Hyland: C-. Another tough one–Bones didn’t do much of note, finishing 1-6 from the field in his 13 minutes (although I think he got a pretty rough whistle on a couple of his drives). But he also held up on defense (credit to Ty Lue for finding the right weak Suns lineups to play him against) and brought his usual energy as his lineups surged to +13. Can’t give a guy a D or F when he’s +13 in 13 minutes. But Bones is going to need to provide more production in these bench minutes if he wants to keep getting them as the series goes on.
- Norman Powell: B. Not Norm’s best game, but far from bad, either. He got the job done in 23 minutes off the bench, scoring 14 points on 5-10 shooting and drawing some fouls. I do think that the Clippers should be making a more concerted effort to use his grifting to aggravate whatever Suns foul trouble situations are going on. I’m also a little concerned that the minutes with him alongside the starters in place of Batum didn’t go super well; that’s Ty Lue’s go-to substitution when things go awry with Paul George out, and while Powell can certainly bring an offensive boost, that sub lowers the lineup’s defensive floor significantly. Shoutout to Norm for scoring 4 big points during Kawhi’s 2 minutes of fourth quarter rest. The Clippers might lose this game without those two possessions.
- Terance Mann: B. I think I also have to go B here? Terance felt like he had a few more notable good moments than Norm, as he finished with 10 points on 3-6 shooting, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Terance closed the game tonight and had a big 3-point play driving against Chris Paul just inside the 5-minute mark. Unlike Norm, who has to be hidden a bit more on defense, Terance primarily saw reps guarding Chris Paul and clearly bothered his elder adversary, who essentially just resorted to repeatedly grabbing Terance’s arm and holding him in an effort to keep up. But Terance had more notable bad moments than Norm, too–4 turnovers and a rough brain fart foul pressuring Devin Booker 80 feet from the hoop with the Clippers in the penalty.
- Mason Plumlee: A-. I’m kind of shocked by my own decision here, and this definitely isn’t how I was feeling as the game went on or immediately after. But Mason actually put in some good work today. He had 7 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 assists while posting a team-high +16 in just 18 minutes, winning matchups against both backup Suns big men and controlling the glass against a brief Durant-at-center lineup that failed to make headway in the fourth quarter. Less impressive was his defense, but he got to play against staggered Suns bench units that hardly tested him, and seemed resolved to just give fouls when his opponent was rolling to the rim. But between Biyombo (35% from the line on the season) and Landale (75%) combining to go 4-8 on free throws, Plumlee’s fouls might have been calculated (especially on Biyombo–it’s likely in the scouting report to send that dude to the line if he catches the ball around the rim).
Just as an overall reflection, I do think it’s pretty compelling that the Clippers beat the Suns on the road in game 1 without it feeling like very many guys actually had great games? Kawhi was spectacular, Russ was feast-or-famine, and for the most part everyone else was… fine? The Clippers’ role players had their moments, but most of the guys (except Gordon and maybe Plumlee) didn’t play anywhere near the level of their best game in recent weeks. I guess I could retcon this and say because we got a road playoff win vs a more talented team, everyone must have played amazing individual games… but maybe it’s more meaningful in the context of analyzing this series that they got this result without those performances. Agree with my grades? Disagree? You know what to do.
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