How important is a point guard? For 35 minutes in Oakland on Wednesday night, Don Nelson actually fielded a team without one. He simply had Stephen Jackson bring the ball up and work it to the wing. Saturday’s Clippers-Jazz game features two teams playing without their starting point guards. With Deron Williams out, Ronnie Price and Brevin Knight split PG duties for Utah. The Clips start Jason Hart, but Dunleavy ultimately gives the bulk of the minutes to rookie Mike Taylor.
The contrast is stark — not so much because Price and Knight are more capable than Hart and Taylor, but because the players on Utah’s roster don’t need a point guard to facilitate good shots. Without Williams, the Jazz coughed the ball up all of four times. That’s it. Jerry Sloan’s flex offense requires a lot of its players — perfectly timed flare cuts, constant motion, smart reads on the defense, all kinds of crazy upscreens, etc. But as much as the Utah offense depends on off-the-ball movement, it requires that each guy on the floor be able to make the pass. What makes the current Utah squad such a tough team is its ability to do that. Take Carlos Boozer. At Duke? Big man of limited skill set — so much so that he dropped to the second round. Under Sloan’s tutelage? An efficient cog who not only posts, but can kick, slip, and curl.
So what about the Clippers? It’ll be interesting to see if Mike Dunleavy’s ostensible decision to slot Taylor ahead of Hart has longterm designs or merely a response to Utah’s game plan. Taylor enters the game with about four minutes left in the first period.
Taylor is wiry and short…and lightning quick. The first time he touches the ball is at [1st, 3:22] following a Utah make. After an off-the-ball foul on Ronnie Brewer, Taylor runs a S/R with Brian Skinner. He dribbles right of the screen, then swings the ball over to Skinner at the top of the circle. Standard NBA play. [The ball ultimately ends up in Tim Thomas' hands, and he converts two FTs after he's fouled on a drive].
The next time Taylor touches the rock, it’s out of a scrum beneath the Utah basket. The ball is tipped Taylor’s way. In under five seconds, Taylor weaves his way through Utah’s transitional defense and lays it up and in. Taylor, when he’s on, will draw some inevitable Monte Ellis comparisons.
In set situations, Taylor benefits from the matchup with the shorter Brevin Knight. Though Knight strips him on one occasional and forces a couple of bad passes, Taylor is able to make crisp entries into the post — as he does to Brian Skinner to start the 2nd. The next possession, Taylor initiates the break by zipping a pretty crosscourt pass in transition to Ricky Davis. He flubs a bounce pass the next time the Clips are on the break, but then floats a lob into Chris Kaman deep into the post. The next possession? Another coast-to-coast break.
Taylor’s ugliest offensive moment comes in the 3rd quarter out of a timeout. The Clips are still in the game — down four about halfway through the period. The Jazz are zoned up in a 2-3. Taylor exchanges cross-court passes with Cuttino Mobley while Kaman struggles to set up at the elbow against Mehmet Okur. Carlos Boozer is brutally shoving Thornton with his ass, depriving him of any space. Thornton has a rough night and will have to learn to cope with more physical defenders in halfcourt situations. It’s the NBA: If Al wants space off the ball, he’s going to have to work for it. Thornton eventually drifts back to the perimeter, where Taylor feeds him. The possession appears similar to an aforementioned one against the Lakers where the ball never actually crosses the arc. Thornton has nothing, so he dishes the ball back to Taylor. We’re at :11 now. Taylor’s instinct now is a smart one — penetrate. So he puts the ball on the floor and attacks — drawing Brewer away from Mobley. In general, this is something the Clips have been missing for some time: A PG who can scramble the defense with dribble-penetration. The only problem here is that Taylor is careless with his kickout — it tips off Brewers hands and into C.J. Miles’. Silver Lining? Taylor rushes all the way back on the break and manages to contest Miles shot. No good. About eight seconds later, Taylor misses an open 3PA — but it’s a shot he’s got to take. No demerit.
So it’s a mixed bag for Taylor. He finishes 5-12 from the field with four dimes and three turns. But he demonstrates a freaky ability to go end-to-end on the break, and he’s capable of working the ball into the post. He needs to be more selective with his long-range shot — and that need to be selective can be mitigated if he can hit a higher percentage of them. And though Taylor will never be as protective of the rock as a Brevin Knight, he needs to be less careless.
Sort of got off the main point here, which is that it isn’t until you watch a team like Utah or the Lakers that you realize how offensively impoverished the Clippers are. Camby, while no scorer, will give the Clippers some flexibility because he knows how to hit a cutter and time a pass to a spot-up shooter coming off a curl. Baron can do amazing things with the ball — but there have to be soft hands on the receiving end. So overall, the Clippers will always be prone to the 3-20 shooting slump, simply because their personnel — particularly on the wings — doesn’t have the skill set to manufacture high-percentage shots. A speedy PG can generate a little offense, and if Baron is healthy, he’ll have nights when he carries the team, and there will be nights Kaman has it working in the post. But unless a team has an infallible offensive option — and few teams do — they have to devise opportunities. And for teams that don’t excel in transition, those opportunities tend to come when good passers are hitting guys who know how to fill space.