Good teams win ugly basketball games, and tonight the Clippers notch their third W in four chances with a workaday, not particularly attractive win over Houston. There should be comfort for Clipper fans in just how utilitarian and bland this victory is. Ugly wins are indicative teams that understand that success requires an almost prosaic commitment to a few basic fundamentals. Most of these revelations for the Clippers are happening at the margins of the game:
- Rebounding: Since getting mauled on the glass in Memphis, the Clippers haven’t lost a rebounding battle in a stretch of games that’s included two matchups against Top 10 rebounding teams. The difference can be seen most prominently with the guards. Eric Gordon collects seven rebounds against Houston — his high mark for the season. One of the ancillary benefits of having guards who can crash the boards is that the subsequent possession begins with the ball in the hands of someone who can push the action. At [3rd, 6:50], EJ waits beneath the weak side glass as Shane Battier fires a long 3PA from the far side corner. Gordon doesn’t exactly have to scrap for the ball, but with Scola having drawn Randolph up top and Yao doing battle with Camby on the ball side, the weak side belongs to whichever wing wants it the most. Once EJ clears the rebound, he bursts upcourt, weaves his way through the entire Houston defense, up the gut of the lane, all the way to the rack for an easy layup. An easy two — in large part because the transition requires no middleman and there’s no time for the Rockets’ defense to get set with EJ racing up the floor.
- Guarding the Perimeter: A Houston team that drained ten 3PMs when they faced the Clippers last week manages only five in 21 attempts last night. Eric Gordon never takes his eyes off Rafer Alston, and when he does, the rotations are crisp. There’s a moment just after the aforementioned EJ transition bucket when the Rockets get the ball over to McGrady on the far side [3rd, 6:34]. EJ leaves Alston to double McGrady. McGrady sees this and returns the ball to Alston, who is now alone up top. But the instant the ball leaves McGrady’s hands, Al Thornton darts from Battier over to Alston. Battier, now unaccounted for, cuts across the court where he’s picked up by…Baron Davis. What’s going on here? Good, clean rotations that anticipate the action before it happens. Everyone in a Clipper jersey is concerned not just with their primary assignment, but where the ball is on the court, and what might be expected of them on the next pass. Cue up the video to any random possession in this game, and you’ll see the Clippers’ defense working like this. It’s almost enough to make you misty.
- Playing the Passing Lanes: Sometimes steals can be deceptive because a high steal number often suggests a willingness to gamble defensively more than it does anything else. There’s a reason San Antonio is almost always at the bottom of the league in steals. But the Clippers last night are able to pick Houston’s pockets not by overplaying, but by anticipation and smart pressure. During an electrifying stretch midway through the 3rd quarter, the Clippers steal the ball away on three consecutive possessions. The result is three straight easy FGs that vault the Clippers into a lead they never relinquish. The first [3rd, 5:50] comes courtesy of Yao Ming, who is pressured by a strong Thornton-Randolph double-team after Randolph recovers nicely off the Battier screen. Yao is flustered. He’s looking for his guards, sees McGrady at the top of the arc. Gordon is the guy holding down the fort up on the weak side wing — EJ is set up between McGrady and Scola. But he sees that Yao is in trouble and that the ball is most likely coming his way. EJ immediately sticks a hand out, deflects Yao’s pass, then races into the other way with the ball. Baron Davis fills the lane to his left. EJ gets Baron the ball for an easy lay-in. At [3rd, 5:23] off an inbounds play beneath the Rockets’ basket, Alston gets the ball into McGrady. With only :07 left on the shot clock, McGrady wants to get it inside to his big man. But Marcus Camby deflects the ball away into the frontcourt. Remember what we said about the benefits of having the ball in the hands of the guard? Bunk. Because Marcus Camby bursts into the open court with a fierce drive! He takes it all the way to the rack for a beautiful finger-roll lay-in! Then, on the very next possession, comes the most satisfying of the three steals: Altson and Scola set up for the high S/R on the near side [3rd, 5:03]. Al Thornton, who’s over on Shane Battier in the weak side corner, sees the lazy set materializing from a mile away. Like a cat, he pounces from the corner up top, squirts between Alston and Scola, tips the ball into the backcourt, and starts his breakaway drive for an easy slam!
Here’s something to remember: When the Clippers were a sound defensive team a couple of years ago, they did it despite the absence of so-called shut down defenders. Cuttino Mobley was a solid man-to-man defender, but Cassell had very little left, Corey Maggette was scattered, Chris Kaman was still very, very green and prone to brainfarts, and Elton was undersized at his position. There’s absolutely no reason that this current squad, which includes Marcus Camby, a smart, physical PG in Baron Davis, a strong, quick guard in Eric Gordon, a rebouding machine in Zach Randolph and Al Thornton — who shouldn’t be worse than Maggettte — can’t be a middle-of-the-pack defensive team. And don’t look now, but since that game against Memphis the Clippers’ defensive efficiency ranking has climbed from the low-20s to 15th. If the Clips continue this trend and keep putting up offensive efficiency numbers like last night’s 104.4, then they should win half of their games.