In a season looking for stability, the Clippers have turned to a player who was not on the roster until a month ago.
“I think he gives us peace when he’s on the floor,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
In the midst of a rotation that is constantly being evaluated for playing time, the Clippers have taken little time to embrace the new face as part of lineups that mostly close out close games.
“It’s confidence, we trust him with the ball,” All-Star Paul George said. “He’s going to make the right plays.”
That player is Eric Gordon, a 34-year-old, 6-foot-3 reserve guard whose 89 minutes in the fourth quarter since the Clippers’ season debut on Feb. 14 were the team’s second-highest in that span, surpassed only by George’s 104. The Clippers have outscored opponents by 47 points in those Gordon minutes, not only a team high, but the NBA’s sixth-best fourth quarter plus/minus since February 14th.
After scoring 14 third-quarter points against Golden State on Tuesday, Gordon played the final six minutes of the fourth quarter to cap the Clippers’ fourth straight victory.
“I’ve always been this glue guy, that calming feeling for a team, where I can come into a game and change the game and know different aspects and how to adjust,” Gordon told the Los Angeles Times. “In every team I’ve been in, good team, bad team, I’ve always been figuring out ways to adapt.”
The Clippers traded for Gordon in the belief that their lineup could provide that sense of security. It’s a role he feels comfortable in, considering the stakes — even among the Clippers’ championship aspirations — feel less weighty after playing basketball seasons surrounded by, in fact, safety.
Before Gordon was a 15-year NBA pro, he was one of America’s top recruits, a guard built like a safety who could drive the ball to the hoop. The verbal commitment to Illinois caused pandemonium. So did his decision to back out of his non-binding commitment and switch to conference rival Indiana after the Hoosiers hired coach Kelvin Sampson.
Eric Gordon, still in high school, is greeted by fans before an Indiana Hoosiers practice in October 2006.
(Darron Cummings/Associated Press)
With widespread fan backlash following 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 expanded to two people, Gordon recalled Wednesday, saying Illinois fans sometimes tried to approach him while he was on campus in Bloomington.
It was all noise that came to a crescendo in Indiana’s road game at Illinois on February 7, 2008.
The pregame announcement of Gordon’s name was nearly drowned out by an Illini crowd that the Indiana student newspaper later “hate-hate-hate-hate.” As Gordon ran to half court for a routine kickoff meeting, Illinois guard Chester Frazier chest-bumped Gordon to send the Hoosier guard back several steps. Hearing “lying” calls, Gordon scored just one point in the first half. He would finish with 19 in Indiana’s double-overtime game — saving one when Gordon’s 3-pointer went in to tie the game with 25 seconds left in regulation.
Even 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 four security guards were hired for that game to protect the parents.
The experience changed what he thought was pressure. Despite being asked to post up, defend and complement Clippers stars George and Kawhi Leonard in the midst of a title push, it’s not about experiencing a game that he took personally.
“You have to fight adversity all the time in the NBA, from team to team, regardless of the situation on the court, it’s about figuring it out and fighting through adversity,” Gordon told The Times. “And I learned that a lot in high school and college.
“At university, nothing was done in our way. We had a great team, they always wanted to fire the coach, they fired him and our season ended badly, and then the Illinois stuff. It was great to have that experience.”
The Clippers are reaping the benefits of Gordon’s second season with the team.
Given his long-range credentials, Gordon’s shooting threat would be the main reason to keep him around late, but he’s shooting just 32% in the fourth as a Clipper, making just 4-for-18 three-pointers. But Gordon has been reliable in limiting his mistakes – 15 assists against just two turnovers – and has found ways to step up for the bigger team, including defensively. When Gordon is on the court in the fourth quarter, opponents make just 40.9 percent of their shots, the second-best mark on the list. When he’s out, opponents shoot 55%. That 14-point percentage is the team’s biggest on-off swing.
To open the second half against the Warriors on Wednesday, Lue inserted Gordon into the starting lineup void left by the departure of Marcus Morris Sr., and Gordon responded with four 3-pointers averaging 26 feet in the third quarter — sort of. By making the Clippers more willing to take their defender much further away from the basket, and also taking them away from helping defend stars George and Leonard. Gordon reentered the fourth quarter with the Clippers up by seven points and played the final six minutes of the eight-point victory.
Clippers’ Eric Gordon, right, shoots in front of Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson during a Feb. 14 game.
(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
“Watching him and playing against him over the years, he always played his role, what the team needed to do,” Lue said. “He’s come in and told me the exact same thing, like, ‘Whatever you have to do, I’ll do it’. And he’s doing great.”
Gordon isn’t the only newcomer to tell Lue that sacrificial message. Gordon’s emergence as a closer has often sidelined starting guard Russell Westbrook. However, Westbrook again made an impact in his 27 minutes, with 15 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers, maintaining discipline with his shots against a defense to make unopposed jump shots.
“You think Russi, you think ruthless,” George said. “And that was the mark he put on the game.”
The multiple Clippers won, adding to the comfort of rotation players Gordon, Westbrook and Mason Plumlee, all of whom were added at the Feb. 9 trade deadline due to more practice time than usual in the past week. But that doesn’t explain the full turnaround, Gordon said. Two weeks after his postgame comments after the loss to Golden State put the onus on the players for a late-season rebound, Gordon was in the locker room late Wednesday and said a change in mindset made it a reality.
George also said now, “we’re playing for each other and we hope to win, that was the big difference.”
And they’ve felt the difference with Gordon’s composure in the clutch.
“I’m never afraid to take a hard shot at the end of the game because there’s going to be a lot of other moments in the game in the playoffs or else you have to be ready to let them fall,” he said. .
In just one month with the Clippers, Gordon has already gone on a five-game losing streak and a four-game winning streak. It keeps it in perspective. He has played worse.