Clipper fans have been eagerly awaiting the night that Baron Davis would unleash his entire offensive arsenal, take over a basketball game, and single-handedly notch a win for the Clippers against a superior basketball team. There’s a buzz in Staples after Baron drains a 30-footer to cap off a 17-point third quarter when that prospect seems not just likely, but inevitable. Unfortunately, Baron doesn’t hit another shot from the floor until the game’s waning moments, long after the Magic roar back on the strength of a 22-2 run to open the fourth quarter. After that, the Clippers never get the deficit below three points.
The first five Clippers possessions of the fourth quarter yield precise one shot attempt — a Mardy Collins airball from five feet on an isolation set against Jameer Nelson [4th, 10:02]. There’s no justifiable reason for Mardy Collins to create a shot for himself during a meaningful possession, particularly if Zach Randolph stands unguarded in close proximity. Poor shot selection mars the Clippers’ 4th quarter. At [4th, 8:26], Mike Taylor puts his head down off a high Randolph screen, darts into traffic and has his floater swatted away by Dwight Howard — even though the little PG has Al Thornton all alone on the baseline. One possession later, Randolph tosses up an awkward driving fadeaway, even though he’s drawn Bogans off Gordon, who stands wide open on the perimeter.
Once Orlando regains the lead — about halfway through that 22-2 run — the wheels really fall off. Baron tries to recreate his third-quarter heroics, but he’s smothered by an energized Magic defense. On consecutive possessions, Courtney Lee valiantly denies him a good look on a post set, then Baron has his transition layup attempt stuffed when he tries to go 1-on-4 against the entire Magic roster.
On the other end, Orlando finally finds its inside-out rhythm. There’s the two-man game executed perfectly by Howard and Brian Cook [4th, 9:41], where they tease Randolph into committing to the double-team low on Howard, giving Cook a wide open look from the arc. This defensive set is excruciating from the Clippers’ perspective for a couple of reasons:  Randolph isn’t the appropriate help man. The guy you send to double Howard is Baron Davis, who’s just across the lane on the right block. Orlando’s weak side spacing isn’t particularly good here. Turkoglu and Lewis are standing next to one another on the far side perimeter, and Mardy Collins has it taken care of. Not to mention that, against Dwight Howard, I want my help sealing off the baseline, not bothering him from behind.  Once Randolph commits, however ill-advised that decision is, Mike Taylor must rotate over on Cook. He doesn’t, and Cook won’t see a shot that open for the rest of the season.
Not to belabor a point that’s been made repeatedly over the past couple of weeks, but to understand why the Clippers are getting burned from the perimeter night after night, you have to examine their help decisions, which are atrociously bad. It’s a shame, because the Clippers turn in a pretty good defensive effort for most of the game, and do solid work on the glass. They defend that Nelson-Howard high S/R very well. In the second and third quarters, they bump Orlando’s wings on their baseline cuts and little flare screens, preventing the Magic from get many comfortable looks — and closing strongly when they do.
How good is Orlando? I can’t quite tell. This clearly isn’t their finest performance of the season, but there are flashes of Conference Finalhood. When a team has a big man on the low block as the focal point of its offensive attack, it will succeed or fail on its ability to exploit the double-teams on that big man. Orlando is beginning to master that science. Having a forward tandem with a versatile skill set is a powerful asset, especially after they’ve played together for a little while in the confines of a coherent system. Turkoglu and Lewis allow the Magic to play a much more varied and nuanced game with Howard. Both Turkoglu and Lewis can spot up. They both know how to play that two-man game where they tease the help defender and try to get him to commit to Howard [similar to that set we saw with Brian Cook who, in effect, is a indigent man’s Lewis/Turkoglu]. Both Lewis and Turkoglu know how to move off the ball and use Howard on the block to work themselves open shots with cuts. Mike Smith spent his pregame segment at the dry erase board diagramming one such set. More than anything, Dwight Howard has elevated his game. His post moves still lack refinement, but they’re much, much improved. Howard has also developed that instinct of knowing instantly where his best pass is — and his delivery of that pass has become more precise.