At the outset, the Clippers play one of their strongest quarters of the season. Their defense stifles Charlotte out of the gate. They defend Charlotte’s high S/R with energy and precision [is that Ricky Davis blocking Raja Bell's 20-footer on the recovery in the closing minute?]. The only clean looks the Bobcats muster are on a couple of pin-downs for Bell [1st, 10:32; 1st, 7:15], but those shots aren’t falling. Offensively, as well, the Clippers play a very heady game in the first quarter. Al Thornton hits only three of his seven from the field in the period, but with one exception, all of his attempts are on assertive moods to the hole, or inside of 15 feet. Baron Davis posts up Raymond Felton [then later D.J. Augustin] to good effect. Marcus Camby flings a perfect 70-foot outlet pass to Ricky Davis, who gets fouled for two shots. And Mike Taylor gets out into the open floor on the break, weaving his way through traffic to finish with a circus layup. The Clippers win the quarter 29-17 [114.5/73.9].
The shine starts to come off at the beginning of the second quarter. Even as the Clippers’ reserves score on each of their first three possessions, Charlotte’s second unit with Vladimir Radmanovic and D.J. Augustin are able to spread the floor. The defensive tandem of Mike Taylor and Steve Novak get burned on two consecutive Augustin/Radmanovic S/Rs along the three-point arc. After that, Emeka Okafor takes over — and a 15-point Clippers lead is whittled down to six in short order. The set that gets the Bobcats going:
- [2nd, 7:59] A 1-5 S/R for Augustin/Okafor [though it might as well be Paul/Chandler]. The Clippers trap Augustin along the perimeter, while Okafor makes a hard dive to the hoop. Al Thornton, who’s covering Gerald Wallace at the elbow, should rotate down and pick up Okafor on the cut [Skinner is yelling at him to do so], but Al is oblivious. Skinner tries to recover himself, or at least block the passing lane, but Wallace slows him up with a back screen. Okafor finishes the pretty alley-oop.
After getting shut out in the first quarter, Okafor scores 13 points in fewer than four minutes in the middle of the second:
- [2nd, 7:18] On the next possession, he abuses Alex Acker off the switch for an old-fashioned three-point play.
- [2nd, 6:56] The Cats go back to that high S/R. This time Al picks up Okafor in the paint, but Okafor has a head of steam and elevates over Al for an easy lay-in.
- [2nd, 6:08] Charlotte goes into Okafor against Skinner one-on-one on the left block. Though Okafor misses the baby right hook, he collects his miss and muscles over both Skinner and Novak for the putback, looking exactly like c. 2006 Elton Brand.
- [2nd, 4:43] Zach Randolph has now replaced Brian Skinner as Okafor’s defender. Augustin and Okafor run another one of those high S/Rs. Baron fights through the Okafor screen nicely, but Randolph’s defense can best be described here as…statuesque. Augustin drops a little bounce pass between the two Clipper defenders. This time Camby is patrolling the paint in wait, so Okafor pulls up for a 10-footer that falls.
- [2nd, 4:07] Another S/R for Augustin/Okafor, but on this occasion the little point guard holds on the ball and fires a 3PA. It’s no good, but since Randolph was so poky defending the roll, Okafor is able to get prime position under the glass. He picks up Augustin’s miss and goes back up for the slam.
Okafor’s exploits continue into the third quarter against the woeful Clippers’ interior defense. The Bobcats’ center goes 3-4 from the field in the first 3:12 of the second half:
- [3rd, 11:42] Larry Brown has won a few basketball games in his time by exploiting the best mismatch on the floor. And after 24 minutes of evidence, he’s quite aware that Zach Randolph can’t guard Emeka Okafor. Here, Okafor is able to set up shop five feet from the hoop, inside the paint against Randolph on the left side. [left block would be too generous]. Felton feeds his big man, who makes an easy drop step and turn for a layup off the glass — and the foul.
- [3rd, 11:29] Another 1-5 S/R. Again, Randolph nominally traps Felton along with Baron, and again, Randolph then spins his head around to see his man rolling unfettered to the hoop. Easy pass, and another easy lay-in. The Cats have spaced the floor to complicate the Clippers’ defensive rotations. As a result, Thornton is too late coming over from the corner.
- [3rd, 8:48] (Okafor’s only miss in the sequence comes when he collects Baron Davis’ rejection of a Felton shot and has to fling the ball at the basket with the shot clock expiring.) Here, we’ve got another S/R up top for Okafor and his point guard. This time, Okafor slips the screen, gets well ahead of Randolph, and goes in untouched with an easy slam.
This basket ties the game 55-55, and Mike Dunleavy calls timeout. The Clippers will never lead again.
Aside from the fact that Zach Randolph is one of the least effective post defenders in basketball, what makes this piece of the Charlotte offense so difficult to defend is that Marcus Camby can’t afford to leave his man, Boris Diaw, alone on the perimeter. This prevents Camby from doing what he does best — providing help defense and guarding the basket.
In fairness, Randolph’s incredible offensive effort must be recognized. He scores 14 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter, making his final five attempts from the floor along with three free throws:
- [4th, 9:48] Baron Davis has a very effective game one-on-one against Charlotte’s smaller guards. For all the talk about the disconnect between Davis and Dunleavy, this is one area where we can be pretty certain their two interests overlap. Davis has always been terrific at exploiting his strength against smaller PGs, and Dunleavy loves that dynamic, as well. Unfortunately, once Taylor emerges as the other guard in the Clippers backcourt, this frees Larry Brown up to assign Raja Bell to cover Baron, while leaving his midgets on Taylor. Baron is able to get a first step on Bell here, but ends up along the baseline, too far underneath to finish his drive. Randolph is there to tip in the miss.
- [4th, 8:03] The Clippers run their own S/R with Baron/Randolph. Though aesthetically speaking, it lacks the grace of Charlotte’s model, it’s still effective. Bell and Diop trap Baron, but Radmanovic rotates early and blocks Randolph’s path to the rack. Zach is still able to draw contact on his heave, and makes both FTAs.
- [4th, 6:39] The Clippers feed Randolph pretty far off the right elbow against Diop. Randolph doesn’t like what he’s seeing, so he wisely returns the ball up top. Baron takes a dribble and penetrates. This draws Diop off Randolph, which allows Zach to float out to the arc unattended. Davis drives-and-kicks, Randolph catches, and Zach’s 3PA over a late-closing Bell is good.
- [4th, 3:32] Though it starts out a little muddled, this materializes into a very nice set for the Clippers. Randolph begins way out on the left perimeter, while Thornton dribbles up top. Zach then rumbles across the lane, getting help from Mike Taylor, who sets a nice screen at the left edge of the paint that catches Okafor as he’s trying to stay with Randolph. Okafor practically slams the little Taylor to the ground trying to fight through that screen, but the Clippers get what they want — Felton has to pick up Randolph as Zach sets up at his favorite spot on the right block. Baron Davis feeds him there, and he devours Felton en route to an easy lay-in, and the foul. Very, very pretty sequence — similar to an effective play the Clippers were able to work against the Knicks.
- [4th, 2:02] A crucial possession with the Clippers down 95-91. This one isn’t as pretty. Though the Clips get the ball into Randolph on the right block, he fumbles his dribble. By the time Randolph picks it up, he’s forced to kick the ball back out to Baron, who launches a 3PA that first hits off the front rim, then caroms high off the glass. Zach is able to collect the miss and lay it back in.
- [4th, 1:15] The Clippers try to work that Randolph/Felton switch again, but this time the action by Taylor isn’t as effective — Okafor forcefully moves through Taylor to stay with Randolph as he heads to his spot on the right block. Doesn’t matter. Zach gets the entry pass from Baron, takes a single dribble toward the baseline, then fires a step-back left-handed jumper with tremendous arc over Okafor.
The decisive sequence of the game is, of course, the final possession after the Clippers snatch the errant entry pass from Diaw to Wallace. With :19 remaining and the Clips trailing by three, Mike Taylor races the ball up without calling timeout.
Generally, I think teams should improvise more often on crucial possessions to prevent the defense from getting set, but here it’s odd because of the unique condition of the three-point deficit. It would seem the best course of action is to push — as the Clippers do — to find a quick score, but if one doesn’t materialize at, say, the :12 mark, call timeout to get your best three-point shooter in the game.
Here’s what happens instead:
- [4th, 0:19-ish] Again, if the purpose of not calling time is to exploit a scrambled defense, that’s not the case here because Charlotte methodically drops back into their set defense. By the :14 second mark, Felton is in front of Taylor, Okafor has picked up Randolph and it’s the Clippers who seem far more disoriented than the Bobcats. Baron senses what’s going on. He’s charting the arc, desperately trying to find some space for himself. Camby comes up to set a screen for Taylor and it works. Taylor is able to penetrate agaisnt a backpedaling Diaw, but that’s the easy part. The bigger concern is: Can he find one of his shooters for the kickout? Yes. There’s Zach Randolph up high on the left side. As he enters the basket area, Taylor zips a pass across his body, but it’s not a good one. Zach is able to find the handle, but not before Gerald Wallace smothers him, eliminating any possibility of a clean shot attempt. Zach is forced to pass it off to Thornton at the top of the arc, guarded by Diaw. At 0:6.7, Thronton elevates for an awkward-looking 3PA. It barely grazes the rim.
Mike Taylor has a nice offensive game (13 points, 6-8 FG, 4 turnovers), but doesn’t yet have the steadiness to lead the halfcourt offense in a tight game down the stretch. His turnover with 0:44 and the Clippers down three is painful. The entire Charlotte defense had collapsed on Zach in the paint, and though Taylor has three open teammates scattered around the court, he gets into the air prematurely and forces a bad pass into Randolph, who is smothered.
The final score might suggest a hard-fought defensive struggle, but that isn’t the case. Charlotte’s 100 points come on only 86 possessions. The Bobcats normally need 100 possessions to score those 100 points. It would also be irresponsible to suggest that the Clippers’ defensive failures emanate entirely down low. In the second half, they allow Raja Bell to get loose on the perimeter. Some of Bell’s shots come under duress [4th, 5:24], but too often, he’s able to drift out to the margins once the Clippers’ defense gets scrambled on those S/Rs [3rd, 5:07, 4th, 1:36]. And sometimes, it’s just Ricky Davis having absolutely no idea where be belongs defensively in a simple halfcourt set –how else does Charlotte walk the ball up and get a wide open look from three-point range with :17 left on the shot clock [3rd, 6:39]?
Until the Clippers figure out how to stop the inside-out game, how to defend big-little S/Rs, how to rotate against teams who can move the ball side to side, they’re not going to be able to sustain much momentum. Eric Gordon’s return will help a little bit because Mike Taylor, as infectious as his speedy offensive game is, has absolutely no idea what to do defensively when he’s taken out of a play. Once you have more than two guys on the floor who don’t have good defensive instincts, it makes far too easy for the offense to get what they want on a given set.