Against one of the league’s defensive juggernauts, the Clippers cast their fortunes with their three-point shot. They launch 28 attempts from beyond the arc — their largest total this season — making 11. For over one half of basketball, the strategy pays off.
Then, at about the 7:00ish mark of the third quarter, you notice the Cleveland defense adjusting. The Cavs start to employ what may best be described as a reverse sag. Ben Wallace begins to stay at home on Steve Novak, following him all the way out to the arc when necessary. Sasha Pavlovic clamps down on Eric Gordon, pushing his way through screens to chase the Clippers’ rookie to any spot on the perimeter. Meanwhile, the Cavs decide that they’ll gladly cede the lane. With Brian Skinner in the game, the Cavs have Zydrunas Ilgauskas to provide any needed help on penetration — and very little help is required, because the Clippers fall in love with the jump shot. Aside from a few slashing moves by Al Thornton and a couple of unsteady drives by Baron Davis, the Clippers confine their game almost exclusively to the perimeter. This, in turns, allows Cleveland to play tight on the Clippers’ shooters.
Am I suggesting that the Clippers should’ve pounded it inside against Cleveland’s defense? Nah. Playing the Cavs in Cleveland is a Hobson’s choice. The only way this Clippers team can win this ballgame is by maintaining their unconscious streak from the outside. But a few more dribble-drives in the third quarter might keep the Cavs’ defense honest, and give the Clips some easier looks from beyond the arc.
By virtue of his 4-13 night from the field, Baron Davis has more than doubled his FG percentage since his return, from 10% to 21.7%. Baron’s shot is still very creaky, but he treats us to one of the more graceful spurts of Clipper offense this season. In the 2nd quarter, Baron assists on six 3PM [four to Steve Novak, one each to Gordon and Ricky Davis]:
- [2nd, 11:05] Baron picks up a loose ball on the Cavs’ end of the floor, and ignites the break. It’s 2-on-3, but against Varejao and Szczerbiak in transition, Baron slings a pretty pass across his body while in the air that finds Eric Gordon alone along the arc. 3PM.
- [2nd, 10:30] Baron picks up the rebound and pushes the ball up. He quickly initiates a little screen and pop at the top of the arc with Novak. Pretty easy: Varejerbiak traps Baron, leaving Novak alone to Baron’s right. It’s an easy pass to Novak. With Ilgauskas closing, Novak decides to look for some open space toward the right corner. He leads Z there, then dribbles back to his initial spot. The quick release gets him an open look. It’s the first of Novak’s five 3PMs on the night. He finishes the game with 19 points [7-15 FG, 5-10 3PFG, 0-0 FT].
- [2nd, 9:29] Baron and Novak try another screen and pop, but this time Varejao recognizes what’s happening and is quick to recover. So Baron takes Daniel Gibson off the dribble, getting ahead of the little guard. When Baron reaches the paint, he sees Ricky Davis alone beyond the arc on the weak side. Baron makes a nice jump pass that hits Ricky in the hands. Catch. Shoot. 3PM.
- [2nd, 8:25] Another screen and pop at the top of the arc…only this time Novak slips the screen. This confuses Varejao, and Novak gets the room he needs. 3PM.
- [2nd, 6:11] This is interesting, because the Cavs counter with a small adjustment on the Davis/Novak action up top. Rather than put the onus on Varejao, the Cavs rotate Szczerbiak up from the right corner [where he’s on Thornton], and send help from the weak side toward Al. This denies Novak the open shot. He passes it off to Thornton, who is now covered by Wallace [the help]. Every team gets burned. The good ones adjust. Now there’s only :09 left on the shot clock and the Clippers have to work for a shot. Thornton fires a skip pass to Ricky Davis on the far side. Touch pass from Ricky Davis back to Baron, who has only :07 to create. He puts the ball on the floor and penetrates left. When the Cavs collapse, Baron somehow finds Steve Novak behind him to the right along the arc. Baron kicks it out and Novak drains the 3PA.
- [2nd, 4:10] Baron and Novak work themselves a switch, but instead of popping to the perimeter, Novak posts up the much smaller Gibson at the right elbow. Baron has Varejao in front of him, so he drives right. But in doing so, he lures Gibson off Novak. When this happens, Novak immediately breaks for the arc, and that’s where Baron finds him. 3PM.
Has Baron Davis been a disappointment? Yes. Does he deserve your scorn? Possibly. Has he lost the ability to shoot the ball with proficiency? Apparently. Assuming the latter is true for the balance of the season, the question becomes, what can Baron Davis do for the Clippers? We see tonight that Baron still has the ability to create for others. He seems legitimately energized by the two-man game he establishes with Novak in the second quarter.
The challenge for Davis going forward will be eliminating his worst five FG attempts a night. If he can do that, be a 42% FG shooter, continue to rebound the basketball, find shots for other scorers, and run the break, then those with well-managed expectations might find themselves less pissed off at him.
Defensively, things get ugly for the Clippers quickly. During Cleveland’s jackrabbit start, the Clippers find themselves distracted by LeBron James on every possession. Fred Jones gets burned twice by Pavlovic. Ilgauskas also has his way against the Clippers inside. When things get hairy in the third quarter, again it’s Ilgauskas. But this time, the Clipper bigs forget to account for Z outside of 15 feet, where he’s very dangerous.
The Cavs extend their lead to 14 with a series of 3PMs toward the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th. A few of the lowlights:
- [3rd, 1:09] The Clippers make the mistake of collapsing onto Varejao in the paint, when the big man puts the ball on the floor from the elbow to drive against Marcus Camby. When that happens, Szczerbiak and Gibson both dash for their spots on the perimeter. Varejao kicks it out to Szczerbiak, who, when EJ closes, touches it over to Gibson for the 3PM. Not sure you need to pay Varejao that much attention with shooters on the loose, particularly since Camby is playing him straight-up pretty well.
- [4th, 11:31] It ain’t astrophysics. Ricky Davis is assigned to Szczerbiak out on the weak side wing. Williams is at the top of the arc on the right side with the ball. Williams turns the corner against Gordon, driving left and Ricky feels the need to leave Szczerbiak alone to help bother Williams. The second Williams recognizes his shooter alone on the arc, he kicks it out. 3PM.
Generally speaking, Ricky Davis is a pretty average defender. But he still has to ask himself:  How vulnerable is the defense if I leave?  Are there more logical helpers?  Is the risk worth it? Answers:  Very, because the Cavs have the floor spread well and the only possible rotation is from Gibson in the far corner — the Clips don’t want to leave Gibson with that uncontested 3PA.  Marcus Camby awaits. In fact, that’s why you have Camby, so you don’t have to leave guys who can do one thing well all alone to…well…do that one thing.  No. First off EJ isn’t beat…yet. Second, if the worst thing that happens is that Williams elevates from the elbow for an off-balanced, contested 15-footer, then that’s not a bad possession. Third, as previously mentioned, if Williams beats Gordon, Camby is waiting. This isn’t to say that Williams can’t hit the floater over Marcus, but wouldn’t you rather that, than a wide open Szczerbiak 3PA?