Shortly following the Clippers’ thrilling season opener against the Golden State Warriors, newly acquired point guard Eric Bledsoe referred to his teammate Nicolas Batum as one of the key players missing from the 113-115 road defeat, concluding his point by telling reporters: “Prayers out to Nico.”
Batum was a last-minute scratch from the Clippers lineup for “personal reasons,” and Bledsoe’s closing remark, along with Batum himself tweeting during the game, added to the concern and confusion of some fans. After all, Batum is the same guy who, last January, scored 14 points in 33 minutes on the same day of his child’s birth.
No specific explanation has been given for the 13-year vet’s opening night absence, and Batum is not on the injury report for Saturday’s matchup with Memphis, indicating he’ll begin the season just one game behind. But even a newcomer like Bledsoe understands that Batum’s return is not a moment too soon.
“We missing some key players who could have helped contribute to this game,” said Bledsoe before mentioning Batum.
Lue Forced to Go Small
Fresh off a shockingly effective 2020-21 campaign (the Charlotte Hornets literally paid Batum to leave their squad before the season began) the 6-foot-9 forward is assured of an even bigger role this time around. Which is saying a lot given that he led the Clippers in total minutes last regular season, splitting time as a starter and the de facto leader of the second unit, and was tops on the team in plus-minus during the postseason. But last year he was a luxury, a reoccurring pleasant surprise. This year, however, with Kawhi Leonard out for much of the season following ACL surgery, he’s an expectation.
Perhaps most revealing of Batum’s anticipated role this season were the lineup combinations the Clippers eventually employed against the Warriors. The Clippers began the game with a more traditional starting lineup of Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac, but they soon found themselves on their heels, down 17 heading into the second quarter following an astounding shooting performance from Warriors guard Steph Curry, who went 9-for-9 and ended the opening frame with 25 points.
Looking for an answer to the speedy and pass-happy Warriors, Clippers head coach Ty Lue opted for a small-ball lineup—a strategy that worked exceedingly well during last season’s long postseason run. But without access to Batum, whose length and efficiency of movement allows him to guard the perimeter as well as the interior, Lue was forced to go even smaller than usual, testing out some configurations for the first time.
“The team that we had on the floor tonight, small lineup, we haven’t played that all preseason or all practice,” Lue told reporters, noting that it was a tough matchup for centers Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein given the Warriors’ pace. (Zubac played 17 minutes; Hartenstein did not see the floor.) Lue’s experiments were a success—the Clippers stormed back to lead by three at half—but there’s no denying that Batum’s absence had an effect down the line.
6-foot-7 two-way forward Amir Coffey was pressed into action, and though Coffey’s efforts and energy were praised by Lue after the game (Coffey was +14), he certainly represents a drop-off from Batum’s size and 3-point shooting acumen. Coffey missed all three of his shot attempts and grabbed only one rebound, a contributing factor to L.A. losing the rebounding battle 53-39 overall and 10-8 on the offensive boards. Coffey played four minutes in the fourth quarter but did not register a stat.
Bledsoe Shines in Opener
As expected, the Clippers were led by George, who finished with 11 assists and 29 points despite not shooting a single free throw (something he brought up in the postgame presser), but Bledsoe also played a large role in keeping the Clippers close. Traded this summer for fan-favorite Patrick Beverley, Bledsoe put to rest some of the trade’s lingering controversy with an outstanding performance in the opener, scoring 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting and nabbing three steals.
Nine of Bledsoe’s field goals came in the lane, fortifying hopes that he can serve as a paint-busting penetrator who can finish at the rim or kick out to shooters on the perimeter. During his postgame comments, Bledsoe, who is entering his 12th NBA season, said he believes the Clippers are a better fit for him than the New Orleans Pelicans, where he suffered a downturn last season.
He had only two assists, however, but certainly some of that was due to missed open shots from an L.A. team that connected on only 14-of-40 attempts from behind the arc (35.0%) and saw Reggie Jackson go 4-for-19 from the floor. Last season, Jackson shot 45.0% from the field and 43.3% from three, and as a team, the Clippers led the league in 3-point shooting percentage with 41.1%.
With Batum presumably back in the lineup against Memphis and Jackson shaking off any first-game jitters, L.A.’s success from long-range should improve, as should their chances of avoiding any big, early-game deficits.