With the Clippers’ two most efficient scorers out of action, we’re back to the dark days of January when it was tough to discern anything meaningful from a game like this. Going in, the game isn’t without some potentially intriguing storylines. In Eric Gordon’s absence, Mike Taylor draws the task of guarding Tony Parker. Matt Bonner provides Mike Dunleavy the opportunity to start Steve Novak without giving up too much defensively. Baron Davis has been playing a better brand of basketball of late. Unfortunately, Taylor picks up two early fouls and a third in the second quarter. Novak begins to emerge from his slump, but the Spurs defend the pick and roll as well as any team in basketball, and the clean looks are hard to come by for Novak.
All of these sideshows ultimately fall into the morass of lousy, low-percentage shots the Clippers fire indiscriminately from the opening possession:
- [1st, 11:26] After futzing around for 15 seconds, Davis and Al Thornton run a pick and pop on the left side. It’s effective — Al rolls into all kinds of open space just inside the arc. He could explode past Michael Finley, if not all the way to the rack [Duncan will be patrolling the basket area], then at least for a pull-up at 15 feet. Instead, Al heaves up a brick with his heel on the three-point line — the lowest value shot in basketball.
- [1st, 10:55] Fewer variables to discuss here. The Clippers march downcourt and Baron gets an immediate screen from Marcus Camby. Roger Mason runs underneath, which is like catnip to a chucker like Baron. The 3PA is way off.
This, in essence, captures the first half for both Thornton and Davis. They combine to shoot 2-18 for nine points. Al actually delivers two pretty interior passes during a spell toward the end of the first quarter when the Clippers move the ball around the halfcourt very nicely:
- [1st, 5:12] Baron and Novak run that high S/R, with Novak popping left. Baron, against the trap, slings a nice pass over to Novak. As Novak rises for the shot, Malik Hairston closes swiftly. Rather than force the shot, an elevated Novak opts to pass it over to Fred Jones in the far corner. For a team without a lot of raw speed, the Spurs have a way of coming out of nowhere to contest shots. Their rotations are crisp and decisive. Here, it’s actually Kurt Thomas who races from the high trap on Baron all the way to the far corner. Jones realizes that trying to shoot over Thomas with arms extended isn’t as smart as driving past the big man, since Thomas’ breaks are a little worn out at this point in his career. So Jones drive, and as he reaches the paint, he pushes a perfect bounce pass through traffic to a cutting Thornton, who picks it up en route to the hoop for a lay-in. Jones is unquestionably the Clippers’ best playmaker tonight.
- [1st, 4:44] The high S/R is for Davis and Thornton this time around. Al is able to get behind Thomas on the roll, and Baron feeds him in stride. But as Al reaches the basket, he’s met by both Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen. Instead of forcing the issue, Al finds an open Marcus Camby along the baseline to his right. Camby goes in for the easy slam.
More times than not, the defense will send some help to deal with a slashing Al Thornton, which means there will often be people open in close proximity. A player of Al’s athleticism leaves so much on the table if he doesn’t parlay those skills into opportunities for teammates. On this set, Al does precisely that and it’s nice to see.
- [1st, 0:45] In transition, Jones gets it to Thornton on the right wing. Al drives toward the hole, but as he nears the paint, he sees [a] two Spurs confronting him and [b] Marcus Camby, who is trailing the play, storming down the lane. Al hits Camby with a pass and Marcus converts the easy two.
After this, there’s a little eye candy — Fred Jones’ 60-footer at the buzzer to end the first and a sick alley-oop from Jones to Taylor once the game is out of hand. Apart from that, the Clippers descend into meltdown mode.
Zach Randolph’s absence hurts Baron more than anyone. Baron needs someone in the low post to feed, not only because it helps lure the defense away from the perimeter, but it also enables Baron to work off the ball. And if Baron is working off the ball, by definition, he’s not heaving up contested 23-footers off the dribble.
As bad as Al is offensively, he single-handedly puts the game out of reach on the defensive end during a five minutes span in the third quarter [3rd, 10:32; 3rd, 9:50; 3rd, 7:25; 3rd, 6:45*; 3rd, 5:23] when he rolls out the welcome mat for Michael Finley (*and Matt Bonner) beyond the arc.
*With the defense scrambled coming downcourt, Al inherits Matt Bonner [hitherto, Al’s man is Finley]. It’s a fairly basic Spurs set: A high S/R for Parker/Duncan with the three shooters spread along the arc. Bonner is to the left of the action. Al is nowhere. He’s not providing help on Parker — who is dribbling laterally with Baron in front of him — nor is he giving the Clippers good coverage on the shooter. Parker sends the ball over to Bonner, who nails the 3PA with Thornton closing late.
In each of the above sequences, Al displays no instincts as to which conditions warrant his help and which demand that he stay at home on the shooter. Good wing defenders have the ability to balance their attention. It’s not about hedging in no man’s land between the action and the perimeter. It’s an instinct, one that a professional player either has when he arrives in the league (Tayshaun Prince) or develops with experience (Gerald Wallace). The Clippers have no assurances that Al has the wherewithal to cultivate this intuition, but as a small forward with marginal offensive efficiency, he’ll need to.