When you examine the anatomy of Al Thornton’s offense, the numbers are pretty dramatic. As an overall jump shooter, Thornton is a 36.7% shooter and generates 0.88 points per possession. When Al finishes at the basket, he’s a 57.2% shooter, and chalks up 1.2 points per possession. Take a look at some heat charts and you’ll find that this isn’t all that unusual. What makes a player efficient, though, is his ability to get the bulk of his shots where he’s most effective.
At the 6:06 mark of the 4th period with the Clippers trailing by a point, Gordon rushes the ball upcourt. Al is wrestling for position just off the mid-right post with Jason Richardson. He calls for the ball, and Gordon feeds him. Thornton pivots and faces up Richardson before taking a decisive hard dribble with his right, bursting ahead to the rim for a slam. Did Thornton have a clear path along the baseline? Yes. Will better defensive teams than PHX give him that unfettered access to the hoop every time down? No. But what strikes you about this particular sequence is how quickly Thornton sizes up Richardson and sees the court. If Al waits another second, Stoudemire has time to come over to contest the shot. By turning four fadeaway jumpers a game into four additional dribble-drives, Al would instantly become a more valuable wing.
A few minutes later, Eric Gordon hits a couple of free throws out of a timeout to tie the game at 100 with 2:53 to play.
The essential questions for any basketball team in a given possession are  What do we want?  How do we get it?
- [4th, 2:35] For the Suns on the next possession, the answer is very easy. Within five seconds, Nash and Stoudemire get the mismatches they want: Gordon ends up on Stoudemire and Camby on Nash. Nash drives past Camby down the gut of the lane, but is met by Skinner underneath. Thornton has rotated from Hill down to Shaquille O’Neal. Nash sees his open man — Hill out on the perimeter. Fred Jones darts over to close on Hill. But the key piece here is that after he made the kick-out to Hill, Nash drifted to an open spot along the baseline at about 15 feet. Camby stays inside and never follows Nash. Hill sees that Nash is open and makes the little pass. The open 15-footer by Nash is good. PHX 102, Clippers 100
- [4th, 2:18] The fundamental problem for the Clippers right now is that they don’t have obvious answers for those questions. I mean, what do the Clippers want? The best answer is probably “a path for EJ to drive.” At any rate, the Suns have the Nash-Stoudemire S/R and the Clippers have…the patented Fred Jones/Brian Skinner S/R. The Clips initially get the mismatch, but the difference here is that Steve Nash can afford to run underneath the screen and recover. Nash cuts off Jones’ drive and forces him to pass the ball off to Marcus Camby, who’s at about 18 feet along the baseline. With :12 second left on the shot clock, Camby takes a dribble to his left to elude O’Neal and fires up an off-balanced jumper. Is this what the Clippers want?
- [4th, 2:05] I wish there was more to pick apart here. The Suns want O’Neal on the left block against Skinner and that’s what the Suns get. With his left shoulder, O’Neal backs in Skinner, draws the contact, then spins baseline to convert the easy layup before heading to the line. When Skinner hears the whistle, he must wrap up O’Neal. Shaq finishes the game 5-5 FTA. PHX 105, Clippers 100
- [4th, 1:47] What do the Clippers want and how are they going to get it? Once again, they initiate the offense with a Jones/Skinner S/R. The Suns opt to double Jones and leave Skinner open on at the top of the circle. Jones finds Skinner, who fires an open jumper with :10 on the shot clock. Where are the Clippers two primary offensive options? Gordon was in the weak side corner being guarded by Richardson. Camby steps out to give EJ a half-hearted screen, but when the action moves right, the pick never materializes as Marcus moves back into the paint to go after the rebound, for which you can’t fault him. Meanwhile, Thornton is in the other corner. Grant Hill never moves off Thornton, even when Jones penetrates in the vicinity. And there’s no reason to, because Jones is doubled, O’Neal is waiting, and Grant Hill plainly knows better.
Neither Gordon nor Thornton touch the ball on either Clippers possession.
There are two things you can take away from these sequences. One, the Clippers simply don’t have the able-bodied personnel to get good shots against smart defensive teams — and Phoenix, though they might not have the league’s best collection of individual defenders, is a smart defensive team. Second, Fred Jones and Brian Skinner initiating the action up top doesn’t challenge a defense. The goal of any offensive possession is to force the defense into making a tough decision. Do we trap Nash off the dribble and leave Amare free on the drag? If we rotate someone onto Amare, who’s going to pick up O’Neal? Won’t that leave either Richardson and/or Hill open on the arc? The Clippers certainly don’t have the Suns’ talent, but they still made things far too easy for the defense.
I don’t have any answers. Maybe that high S/R should be run with EJ and Camby. Maybe you feed Thornton in the post and lure the Phoenix bigs out of the lane [though with Brian Skinner, there’s little incentive for them to follow and, besides, Thornton probably can’t execute the sort of pass necessary to exploit a rotation]. Either way, the game’s two key offensive possessions need to produce something better than Camby off-balanced from 18 with :12 on the clock, and Skinner from the top of the circle with :10.