For about 42 minutes, the Clippers choreograph a perfect evening of basketball.
There’s an exquisite two man game [2nd, 2:34] with the young guys, Eric Gordon and Al Thornton where Al uses his muscle to seal off Jason Kidd for an easy layup. There’s Baron Davis [2nd, 1:20] masterfully skidding the ball between two defenders to hit a cutting Eric Gordon along the baseline for another easy layup. There’s Zach Randolph [3rd, 2:45] up top with the ball, recognizing the Al Thornton-Jason Kidd mismatch down low on the weak side block – Thornton cuts across the lane, where Randolph zips him a pass for yet another easy layup. Even Steve Novak gets in on the action [4th, 9:54], filling up some open space behind a high S/R to set himself for a wide open 3PA, which he drains. And how about the beautiful pindown action [4th, 8:47] with Al Thornton freeing up Zach Randolph for an easy 10-footer?
The Clippers aren’t only winning tonight…they’re winning with style.
But after Baron Davis and Zach Randolph work a S/R to perfection that yields a simple left-handed turnaround hook by Thornton Randolph at [4th, 7:00], the Clippers attempt exactly two shots from inside 18 feet for the remainder of the game.
Why aren’t better shots materializing? Is Dallas tightening their defense? Is it the zone? Are the Clippers not finding the mismatches that yielded the orgy of easy shots earlier in the game?
- [4th, 6:00] The Clippers drain about 16 seconds from the shot clock before Randolph ventures up from the block to set a high screen on Kidd for Baron Davis. Brandon Bass shows behind the screen, then drops back. This leaves Baron Davis a lot of space behind the arc. He takes what appears to be a reasonable 3PA that doesn’t fall.
- [4th, 5:35] The Clippers are using Novak to space the floor. He and Thornton are in the corners. Randolph is set up in the high post on the right side. Marcus Camby is out on the left arc, with Baron holding it up top on the right side. At the :12 second mark, Novak races across the court to the weak side perimeter. Davis moves the ball over to the weak side and Camby. Bass is diligently staying between Randolph and the ball. Camby sees that Bass is overplaying Randolph, and tries to bounce a pass over the play toward the hoop which — ideally — Randolph will cut to, and lay in. Unfortunately, Nowitzki gets his hand in the passing lane and the Clippers turn it over.
- [4th, 5:03] Al Thornton gets out ahead in transition along the left sideline. Davis finds him at about the three-point line. Al takes a single left-handed dribble, then explodes to the hole for a layup, and gets fouled. He misses the free throw. Despite the miss, Al is shooting about 80% from the stripe for the season, a marked improvement over the beginning of last season.
- [4th, 4:07] It’s worth noting here that almost an entire minute has expired since the Clippers have had possession. Why? Dallas pulls down yet another offensive rebound. The Mavs win that battle 13-9. Once they regain possession, the Clippers have their starting unit on the floor. Again, they burn a lot of clock. It’s at :07 before Thornton dumps it into Randolph on the right block against Nowitzki. This time, Zach gets double-teamed [it's Bass, on loan from Thornton, who has drifted way back up top]. Randolph tries to dribble/circumnavigate the double, but ultimately throws the ball away trying to hit…well…either Camby on the left block or Thornton, who has dived back into the play. The Mavs get out on the break. I’m not sure if Al’s decision to disappear way up top after the entry pass is by design or if it’s Al’s unilateral decision. But the result is an easy Dallas double-team on Randolph. Unfortunate, either way. Instead of getting either Randolph one-on-one from 10 feet or Thornton open for a 3PA, the Clips get neither.
- [4th, 3:41] The Clippers are intentionally burning clock on each possession, and the result is a bevy of lousy, rushed shots and misguided passes. Here, it’s :09 before Randolph sets the high screen for Baron. This time, the Dallas defense off the S/R is less impressive; Baron gets an open lane to the left of the screen. But as he elevates for the layup, the ball simply slips out of his hand. Dallas goes the other way.
- [4th, 2:55] Another high S/R with Baron and Randolph, this time at about :11. Bass drops back to guard against any penetration by Baron. Baron reaches the stripe and is met by both Bass and now by Jose Juan Barea, who has caught up to the play after the pick. Baron wisely kicks the ball out to a wide open Al Thornton along the left arc. Al drains the 3PA. Clippers by seven. They don’t score again.
- [4th, 2:15] Dallas opts to leave the hot-handed Jose Juan Barea in the game, and to go with a zone — with Jason Kidd down low. The Clips want to exploit it. The play call is a straight iso of Thornton against Kidd, but Kidd gets his hands on the entry pass and knocks it out of bounds. Baron appears frustrated now. The Clips call timeout. Out of the timeout, the Clippers don’t do anything constructive. You can sense that the called set might be a down screen for Eric Gordon: Baron Davis flings his arm out and yells something, which prompts Randolph out of his stupor at the elbow to initiate the down screen to free up Gordon. EJ runs up the sideline to receive the pass from Baron. The set is so poorly executed that it doesn’t yield much of anything and Baron opts to keep the ball himself. Randolph tries to salvage the play with a high screen to give Baron more space, but Baron has already launched his 3PA. Way short. My intention here isn’t to assign blame: It’s possible that any or all of Baron, EJ, Randolph could’ve bothched the set.
- [4th, 1:51] Before the Clippers can even get set, Baron Davis fails to execute a simple side pass to Thornton. Dallas ball.
- [4th, 1:23] The Clippers lead is only three. Baron has it up top on the right side, against Jason Terry. The Dallas zone is in full effect now. Camby and Thornton are on the weak side block/wing. Randolph sets a S/R for Baron at :13. Baron dishes it off to Gordon to his left. Maybe because Barea is cheating a few steps over toward Baron, EJ feels compelled to fire from about 27 feet. The shot is horribly off-line. And it’s really too bad. With Barea out of position defensively, Kidd has rotated over, leaving Thornton alone in the corner. It’s a simple pass for EJ, and Camby can clear or pin what little is left of the Dallas defense [Dirk]. Al would have the entire baseline to himself. Tsk.
- [4th, 0:58] Clips by only one. The action is another high S/R with Baron/Randolph. The zone kills it, because there’s nowhere for Randolph to go when he slips the screen. The Clippers are flustered. Baron gets the ball over to Gordon in the right corner. As Bass steps up to challenge him, EJ sidesteps to the right of the defender and launches a jump shot from about 18 feet. No good. It’s not a horrible shot, but there’s better stuff to be had.
- [4th, 0:35] The Clips finally devise their zone-busting strategy: Get it into Randolph at the stripe and force Dallas to make a decision to double. Before the intrigue, though, Randolph puts it on the floor and has it stripped by Kidd. Michael Smith is enacting his Rosetta Stone fantasies, having far too much fun enunciating Juan Jose Barea.
- [4th, :09] Dallas gives their foul, so the Clips have :06.7. Not much to explicate. Davis launches a contested 26-footer with his legs split with :03.9 remaining.
The most effective way to beat a zone is with quick ball movement [smart skip passes], and weak side cutters [player movement in general]. Unfortunately, the Clippers don’t have many adept passers, and their wings don’t move all that intuitively off the ball. I don’t suspect we’ll see a zone in Houston — Rick Adelman doesn’t think much of it — but we shouldn’t be too surprised if we see more of it in the coming weeks.