It’s been a long while since we had a reason to take a close look at the final few minutes of a game between the Clippers and an elite opponent. When you consider that the Clips feature Fred Jones and Mardy Collins at the wings for virtually the entire second half, it’s incredible they’re able to keep it competitive down the stretch against Boston, much less pull it out.
Collins v. Pierce? This can’t possibly be what the Clippers want to order up with five minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, trailing only by two. But there they are, running a two-man game on the left side of the floor with Jones and Collins while Baron Davis, Zach Randolph, and Marcus Camby are bundled within five feet of one another on the right side.
- [4th, 4:55] Pierce tries to deny Collins the ball by fronting him way out on the perimeter. By the time Mardy gets the rock from Jones, there’s only :09 left on the shot clock. As mentioned above, the spacing on the floor is perplexing. You assume someone’s going to flash to the foul line or run a back cut, but nothing ever materializes. Randolph drifts low and Baron moseys out to the arc, but it’s clear the play is a straight-up iso for Mardy Collins against Paul Pierce. All of a sudden, the oddest thing happens: Mardy Collins hoodwinks Pierce with an impressive little stop-and-go move — a slight flick of the head and right shoulder that commits Pierce, and yields Collins the baseline. Collins gets all the way to the box, then has to absorb some contact from Kendrick Perkins underneath, as he tosses up a wild floater across his body, while falling to the floor. Boston 86, Clippers 86
- [4th, 4:32] Pierce isn’t pleased. He calls for the ball at the top of the circle against Collins. Pierce unwinds with a drop step, then takes a hard left-handed dribble past Collins, reaching the paint quickly. But as he goes up for the layup, Collins swats it from behind. The ball goes out of bounds and the Celtics call timeout. On the inbounds, the Clippers force a five-second violation. Boston is an improbable turnover-prone team, 28th in the league in turnover rate — one of only seven teams in the NBA that squanders a quarter of its possessions.
- [4th, 4:13] The Clippers are now officially initiating action for Mardy Collins. Baron Davis runs a baseline screen for Collins. Pierce runs underneath, but Jones hesitates dumping the ball inside to Collins. In the interim, Pierce recovers and forces Collins all the way out to the arc, where he gets the ball from Jones. That cut we were waiting for? It finally comes — a deceptively agile Zach Randolph diving into the paint ahead of Perkins. Collins feeds Randolph about seven feet from the hoop. Zach uses his right shoulder against Perkins to get plenty of space for his left-handed hook. Clippers 88, Boston 86 The Clippers’ spacing seems insane when it’s intended for a Mardy Collins isolation set — and he probably doesn’t score more than 75 points on a 100 possessions one-on-one against Pierce. But it works here, primarily because it clears the space around the basket for Randolph.
- [4th, 3:55] This set normally works wonders for Boston. They run Ray Allen around a couple of big man screens — the first a baseline pick from Glen Davis, the second a down screen from Perkins after he leaves the ball up top for Rondo. It starts out nicely for the Celtics. Jones gets caught, but ultimately squeezes over the screens. For whatever reason, though, Zach Randolph feels compelled to double Allen off the ball. This leaves Perkins wide open at the left post. Rondo finds Perkins quickly, prompting Camby to rotate off Davis, which he does. The final pass is to a wide open Glen Davis under the basket, only Camby pokes the pass away and Collins runs it down.
- [4th, 3:35] After an out-of-bounds deflection in transition, the Clippers inbound the ball to, who else, Mardy Collins in the post against Paul Pierce on the right side. This time Pierce doesn’t give up an inch. He smothers Collins, forcing Mardy to kick it out to Marcus Camby at the top of the circle. Boston has been giving Marcus that shot all night, particularly in the first quarter. Marcus’ eFG% outside of close range is 36.4%, which makes it a good strategy. This attempt from Camby is no good.
- [4th, 3:26] It’s a S/R on the right side for Rondo/G. Davis. The Celtics get the switch and, even better for them, Glen Davis has a nice seal against Baron Davis along the baseline. To his credit, Randolph quickly drops down to pick up Glen Davis, who gets fouled by Baron from behind. It’s important to note here I don’t fault Baron — and here’s why: Among the many reasons to love Rajon Rondo is the way he scrambles the defense prior to the pick-and-roll. Flash back about five seconds on this possession. Rondo begins the set with a strong dribble-drive directly at Baron, then pulls back. This gets Baron off-balanced. That’s when the screen comes from Glen Davis — when the defense is in the least advantageous position to absorb it. Incidentally, Baby misses both free throws and the Clippers maintain their two-point lead.
- [4th, 3:16] For the umpteenth consecutive possession, Baron Davis leaves the ball up top with Fred Jones. Baron then immediately heads low because…it’s a pin down for the Clippers’ offensive juggernaut, Mardy Collins. Mardy flashes to a spot about four feet inside the foul line, catches, elevates, and has his shot sent backwards by Perkins. On the Celtics break, Marcus Camby knocks Ray Allen’s layup attempt out of bounds. More good transition defense from the Clippers.
- [4th, 2:57] The Clippers win this game on the strength of their defense, as the Celtics convert only one field goal from the floor in the game’s final nine minutes. Here, the C’s run a S/R up top for Allen/Glen Davis. Jones and Camby trap Allen as he comes off the screen left. Allen has Pierce in front of him, but Collins is guarding Pierce tightly in the post. So Allen swings it back to Davis way beyond the arc. The Celtics have nothing working on the set. Randolph rotates up on Davis and the C’s are now in their rotating pick-and-roll mode — Davis drops the ball off in Rondo’s hands, then sets a screen for his wiry point guard. Rondo gets the switch, but Baron Davis and Zach Randolph recover about as well as you’ll ever see them as a defensive tandem. It’s a thing of beauty, but basketball is a funny game — on one of the Clippers’ best defensive possessions of the night, Glen Davis drains a 20-footer the Clippers are more than happy to have him take. Clippers 88, Boston 88
- [4th, 2:40] A more traditional set from the Clippers’ principal offensive players — a side screen-roll for Baron/Randolph on the left side. Perkins’ length prevents Baron from hitting Zach with the pass, so the ball goes around the perimeter to the right — first Camby, then Jones, then Collins deep in the right corner. Collins challenges Pierce off the dribble, but gets nowhere, and with :04 remaining on th shot clock, settles for a 22-footer that’s short.
- [4th, 2:14] Rondo uses a screen by Glen Davis to go left, then feeds Pierce against Collins on the left block. Pierce gets Collins in the air, draws the foul, then recites a litany of his personal and athletic attributes — and Mardy Collins’ lack of any such qualities — about two inches from Collins’ face. This display of self-expression earns him a technical. Fred Jones attempts the FT — he’s 81% for his career, 79% for 2008-09 — but it’s no good. Pierce hits one of two. Boston 89, Clippers 88
- [4th, 2:01] Again we have Fred Jones and Mardy Collins dancing circles out on the left wing. Collins swings behind Jones for a handoff, but Fred holds onto the ball, because Pierce is tight on Mardy. Finally, Randolph runs out to the far left sideline, where he bails out Jones. With only :07 to work, Zach tries to back in Davis, but never has a good handle on the ball. He fires up an airball at the buzzer.
- [4th, 1:37] Defensively, Mardy Collins has some decent features. For instance, he allows you to run switches and not worry too much about it — at least on his end. The Rondo/Pierce S/R yields such a switch for Rondo, but Collins is undeterred. Meanwhile, Baron is doing yeoman’s work on Pierce, forcing him out beyond the circle. Rondo sees the mismatch and works the ball over to Pierce, who holds it against Baron. Pierce tries to drive right, but Baron’s quick left hand knocks the ball away momentarily. Pierce hastily picks it up, but is forced to call timeout when his thumb spurts blood. Out of the timeout, the C’s run a S/R along the arc for Allen/Davis. The Clippers trap and, again, there’s a swift rotation onto the roll man, this time by Baron. Allen finds Rondo on the weak side. Baron recovers and closes on Rondo, but not without fouling him with only :02 remaining. Bad foul, which Baron fully realizes. It’s his fifth. Rondo makes one of two. Boston 90, Clippers 88
- [4th, 1:14] Offensive rigor mortis again for the Clippers. There’s :16 left on the shot clock before Baron leaves the ball with Jones, then :11 before Jones even dribbles the ball. Nobody moves. Ultimately, Baron comes back for the ball at :08. He gets a quasi-screen from Randolph, dribbles to the right of it along the arc, then fires an awful-looking left-to-right flailing 3PA with a little karate kick release. It’s lucky to draw rim…but Marcus Camby collects the miss and kisses the putback off the glass. Boston 90, Clippers 90 The Clippers’ orchestration of their last few sets should disqualify them from this game, but their gritty defense and some good fortune are keeping them in it.
- [4th, 0:48] The Celtics quickly execute a Rondo/G. Davis S/R. The Clips trap Rondo, leaving Davis to pop out to the perimeter. That’s where Rondo finds him. Davis launches an 18-footer that’s short, but Rondo snags the rebound along the baseline. Baron stands between him and the basket. As Rondo makes a move to the hole, Baron grazes him. It’s a tough foul call on Baron — not completely unfair — just tough, one that could go either way. Rondo sinks one of two. Boston 91, Clippers 90 Whatever injustice occurred on the previous play against Baron, the Clippers’ deities exact their revenge on a very, very questionable call off Rondo’s missed FTA. Here’s what happens: Collins goes up for the rebound, with Glen Davis close-by. Collins seems to call timeout without ever securing the ball. Upon hearing the whistle, my initial assumption was that Davis was being called for the foul, because the ball was clearly still loose. A team may only timeout when they have possession. Though it’ s the assumption of almost everyone in the building that Collins will come down with the ball, he never actually does. In any event, the Clippers catch an enormous break from the officials.
- [4th, 0:33.6] On the inbounds, the Clippers don’t screw around. You don’t take on Zach Randolph’s contract and baggage to have him stand around on the weak side while Fred Jones and Mardy Collins force the action in the waning moments of a close game against a championship team. The ball goes into Randolph on the right block, a little farther out than where he likes it. He tries to force his way inside with a dribble, but can’t make the progress he wants against Perkins. Randolph kicks the ball out to Jones at the top of the arc. Jones fools Allen with a ball-fake, drives inside, has a perfectly clean look at the foul line, but opts to kick it over to Mardy Collins on the right wing with about :13 left on the clock. Collins drives baseline, then airballs a floater from 7 feet — but Randolph is on the other end. He collects the ball and lays it off the glass and in. Clippers 92, Boston 91
- [4th, 0:19.4] Pierce (ball)/Allen S/R up top. Pierce gets Jones on the switch. He dribbles to the foul line, stops, and pops, but misses the jumper. Jones plays him adequately, but Pierce’s look is fairly clean. Ricky Davis comes up with the rebounds. He’s fouled, but the Celtics have one to give. So the Clippers can chew off another second or two and insert another quality FT shooter, Steve Novak. The next man fouled is Zach Randolph, at 0:05.2. Randolph makes only one of two. Clippers 93, Boston 91
- [4th, 0:05.2] The Celtics have no timeouts, so they must race the length of the court. Rondo does a good job of eluding Mike Taylor. He weaves upcourt along the left sideline, then brushes past Ricky Davis at about the 0:01.5. Form about 20 rows up during live action, this appeared to be a foul. Upon video review, the no-call seems like the right call. Of course, this takes nothing away from Davis’ sheer idiocy for even touching Rondo 28 feet from the basket dribbling along the sideline.
If this were a college game, Clippers fans would rush the floor to celebrate a perversely satisfying home win over a far superior opponent.
Back to the defense for a moment: The Clippers give up precious few easy baskets tonight. Even when the Celtics stop turning the ball over and fight back toward the end of the first and start of the second periods, the Clippers are stingy. A Rajon Rondo 27-foot 3PA with :02 remaining on the shot clock when the Clippers have Pierce locked down low with a fierce trap [1st, 0:37]? That’s a shot you can live with. As is a Gabe Pruitt contested 3PA with the shot clock expiring at [2nd, 11:04].
How are the Clippers able to deny Boston good shots? It all starts with the wing defenders. Before he departs with a bruised left shoulder, Eric Gordon does good work running atop every screen he can to deny Ray Allen clean looks at the basket. Allen is afforded few shot attempts, while Pierce is able to get only contested ones against a dogged Mardy Collins.
Al Thornton has been such a fixture in the lineup for the past two seasons that it’s odd to observe a game in which he plays no part. Collins couldn’t be a more different player with a more divergent skill set from Thornton, but tonight Collins’ defensive presence gives the Clippers what they need against Paul Pierce, even as his offense presence is far too central to the Clippers’ halfcourt game.
Tomorrow, I’d like to look at what a Thornton-less Clipper team might look like in the long term.