LOS ANGELES -- With just over a minute left in a tie game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center earlier this month, Clippers guard Eric Gordon skied into the air and grabbed a missed shot from Kevin Durant for a key defensive rebound.
On the ensuing possession, Gordon and rookie sensation Blake Griffin played as good of a two-man game as any you'll see in the NBA.
Gordon, guarded by All-NBA second-team defender Thabo Sefolosha, got the ball on the left of the basket beyond the 3-point arc and passed to Griffin in the post. Griffin didn't find many options -- he was being defended square-on by Nick Collison with Serge Ibaka lurking just a few feet away -- so he passed back to Gordon and the sequence repeated.
When Griffin delivered the ball to Gordon a second time, the third-year guard caught it in the triple-threat position and then immediately faked a pass back to Griffin. Sefolosha bit -- ever so slightly -- and Gordon took advantage, elevating immediately for a straight-on 3-pointer that swished through the net and won the game for the Clippers.
"He's the guy that's always there," Griffin says of Gordon, referring to that moment and the 2010-11 season in general. "He's the guy that has hit big shots for us -- big shot after big shot after big shot. It's great to always have him right there, and as a player, you love to have a guy like that backing you up, somebody you can kick it out and know he can make a play."
You couldn't say that about Gordon, 22, entering this season. You could say he was an emerging talent, but you couldn't say he was a good bet to make a play whenever he was given the ball.
Now you can.
And sure, the play was irrelevant in the grand scheme of the season. All it really did at the time was give the Clippers their 30th win -- one better than in 2009-10 -- and force the Thunder to wait three more days to build upon their 50-win season from a year before. But it also represented a significant amount of growth in Gordon's game.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Indiana native has always been a lethal outside shooter, dating back to even before his days at North Central High in Indianapolis. But only this season did he become the type of player who could set up his teammates for shots and create his own off the dribble -- and, more frankly, only this season did he get a chance to play with a burgeoning star the caliber of Griffin.
In short, he has experienced what is commonly called a breakout season.
"I think I've had a pretty good breakout year, but that's what I expected, that's what I was planning on," Gordon said recently. "I thought I was more comfortable and playing hard every night and trying to bring success to this team. That's what I look forward to, even next year. I hope we make it to the playoffs."
The Clippers didn't make it to the playoffs this season, but until Gordon missed 24 games in a two-month span earlier this year because of a wrist injury, he was nestled comfortably in the list of the NBA's top 10 scorers, an accomplishment in itself.
He's no longer eligible because of his stint on the injured list, but Gordon's points-per-game average (22.3) would have ranked 13th overall in the league. Perhaps equally as impressive, his assists (4.4) would have ranked eighth in the NBA among non-point guards, just behind the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Miami's Dwyane Wade.
His rebounds and steals have gone up, too, even on a per-minute basis, and many basketball analysts have said his defense has improved as well. But there's work to do on that end of the court for Gordon and there's work to do as far as the approach to the game is concerned -- namely, in how he approaches his teammates as a leader in the future, according to Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro.
"He's made progress in a lot of different areas, but I think there's a lot more there," Del Negro said. "Eric's a quiet kid and he's kind of getting out of his element a little bit. He's becoming a little more leader-oriented as he's getting older and maturing a little bit.
"There's still other layers to his game. Statistically, offensively he's very good. Defensively, I think, when he puts his mind to it, that's where his game could take the biggest leap -- not only individually, but team-wise."
Gordon, who freely talks about his "basketball addiction" and can be coerced into opening up about his short-term goal to become the NBA's top scorer in the next two seasons, also notably says he wants to be the "main leader" for the Clippers in the future.
It's an option, surely, with Griffin, the other potential leader, also not the most vocal player in the NBA. But for Gordon to develop any sort of outward leadership skills, he would need to make some serious changes in his long-standing disposition, although both player and coach say it's possible.
"We'll see," Del Negro says. "Some guys are leaders by their actions, some guys are vocal leaders, some guys are leaders by both.
"Eric, I think, is going to have to show more leadership through his actions and his work habits and things like that than probably his personality, but he's still 22, he's still maturing and he's still going to be a different player in two or three years than he is now. Everyone tries to rush the process, but the process is important. The guys that make the next step in this league are the guys that are willing to work on their weaknesses."
Gordon is the type of player -- and the type of person -- who's more comfortable talking about his flaws than his positive traits, more comfortable talking about what he needs to do than what he already has done.
"I just want to be consistent," Gordon says. "I remember earlier this year I was struggling with my 3-point shots -- now I'm not. I want to become more of a post man, too, learning different moves from the post. And I can always work on ball handling, even though I've gotten better at that this year."
Del Negro can shed more light on his shooting guard's weaknesses, but his refrain when it comes to Gordon is simple: The more versatile he gets as a scorer and overall player, the more teams -- and officials -- will respect him when it counts late in games, presumably leading to more Clippers victories.
And that, above all else, is Gordon's focus.
"I'm just trying to help this team win, especially late in games," he says. "That's probably where I do most of my work, in the second half of games."
The statistics confirm his assertion.
In clutch conditions this season -- defined as the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with neither team ahead by more than five points -- Gordon is at his best, according to advanced statistics from 82games.com.
His shooting percentage is almost 10 percent better in clutch conditions than in the rest of his games. His free throws? More than 12 percent better. His clutch 3-point percentage? More than 20 percent better than his average -- and tops among all NBA players who have taken 10 or more clutch 3-pointers this season.
All told, his shooting percentage is nearly 25 percent better in the fourth quarter than in the first half and he scores nearly 25 percent more points in the second half than in the first. And yet, his popularity on a national level is incredibly low. Gordon is still far from a household name, very far from the highly recognized star Griffin has become in his first full season.
But he doesn't seem to mind.
"A lot of people know what I can do, and that's all that really matters," he says. "That national exposure, that can depend on anybody. At least people like owners and general managers know what I'm capable of."
Clippers general manager Neil Olshey has praised Gordon at every opportunity since selecting him in the 2008 NBA draft. And while Gordon has failed to lead the Clippers to any sort of serious playoff contention so far, he and Griffin appear to have the team readying for a run at the playoffs as soon as next season.
And so that's where the learned leadership comes in handy -- as well as every other skill Gordon has picked up in his first three years in the NBA. And every attribute needs improvement. It's a good thing Gordon has proved to be such a hard worker over the summer, with last year's World Championships playing a sizable role in his breakout this season and specific on-court advancements, such as more accurate vision and better dribbling.
"He's gonna score the ball -- he's too strong, too gifted, too powerful not to," says Del Negro, who coached MVP candidate Derrick Rose in Chicago for two seasons and witnessed what he says is similar growth from the two guards. "But he's gotta get a midrange game, he's gotta work on his left hand, his handle, different things. That's why he's a young player. But at the same time, that's the exciting thing about guys like Eric. They're very good players, but they also have a lot of growing to do and a lot of understanding of the game and work habits that hopefully we can help him with to become an elite 2-guard in the league.
"He has the potential to do it."