In the first half the Clippers miss a ton of easy looks. In the second half they can’t find one. There’s no reason that these five starters — each of whom is traditionally a proficient offensive player — should have this much trouble generating shots in the halfcourt. The two least capable scorers on the floor — Dahntay Jones and Renaldo Balkman [though you'd never know from his line] — actually belong to Denver, but it’s the Clippers who finish with only 94 points in 102 possessions. That adds up to 92.2 offensive efficiency, nearly seven points fewer than their league-low average of 99.1.
The Clippers don’t convert a field goal in the second half until their 11th possession, at the 6:54 mark when Eric Gordon drains a long 3PA. In the preceding ten trips down, the Clips manage a trip to the line on four occasions, but come up empty six times. What’s going on? Are they missing easy looks? Is the offense just stagnant? Are they settling for low-percentage stuff early in the shot clock? The six:
- [1st, 11:36] Eric Gordon brings the ball up, which usually means Baron is going to post up at the left elbow. EJ delivers him the ball there, then retreats to the left corner. Baron waits for Marcus Camby to sweep across the foul line and set a screen so Baron can drive right. Camby slips the screen, but Balkman does a nice job cutting off the passing lane between Baron and Marcus. Besides, Nene is cheating off Kaman and has an easy rotation onto Camby. This set basically fools no one — not Billups [Baron's man], not Balkman, and not Nene. Baron changes hands and goes left into all that traffic. He manages to get to about five feet, but his shot never gets to the rim — it’s swatted away by Balkman.
The Clippers never look for Gordon in the offense, and it’s something Mike Smith hits a couple of times in the broadcast. It’s March now and aside from the fact that the Clippers are mathematically eliminated from the postseason, Gordon is their most efficient scorer on the floor, by an enormous degree. While it might offend Baron Davis’ sensibilities to defer to another guard, isn’t it about time to make Gordon the focal point of the offense?
- [3rd, 10:34] Denver is on a 7-0 run, and their five-point halftime lead has ballooned to 12. The first action is a pin-down for Eric Gordon, only Thornton’s screen down low is so ineffectual that Dahntay Jones never even has to brush Thornton to run through it. Baron’s eyes follow Gordon up to the arc, but Baron realizes there’s nothing there, so he goes to Plan B — feeding Kaman off the right elbow. Baron starts to dive toward the basket, but slams on the brakes at the foul line. This is news to Chris Kaman, who has already lobbed a pass into the lane. It ends up in the hands of Nene. The transition opportunity for Denver results in a trip to the line for Balkman.
- [3rd, 10:07] The Clippers inbound the ball on the left sideline after an early off-the-ball foul on Denver. The Clippers are completely disoriented. Camby and Kaman are both trying to occupy space at the right elbow. Meanwhile, Gordon and Thornton run a sloppy pin-down that ultimately turns out in the Clippers favor — Thornton gets the smaller Jones isolated in the left mid-post. Baron feeds him there. Help comes quickly — two defenders actually: One off Kaman at the right elbow, the other off Baron Davis out on the left arc. George Karl sends double-teams at Thornton on a few different occasions, something Al isn’t used to. Thornton hesitates for a moment, then kicks it out to Davis, though not without enough time for Billups to recover.
Plan B — Kaman sets a high screen for Baron. The Nuggets trap Baron. Though Kaman yells for the ball [just before he plows into Jones and they both go sprawling to the floor. For some reason, it's visually hilarious. Good to have Chris back on the court], it goes over to Gordon with :05 on the clock. He can’t get much space to work against Carmelo Anthony here and fires a contested 3PA with the clock at :02. Camby’s tip-in off the miss is no good.
I don’t want to pick on Thornton, because it’s not a capital crime or even a felony. But the ability to make that pass out to Baron a nanosecond quicker before Billups recovers, separates one class of pro player from another. If Al does that, then Baron has a wide open look. He still made a clean pass, which isn’t a foregone conclusion against pressure, so let’s credit him for that.
- [3rd, 9:15] Another isolation set posting up Thornton off the mid-left post. This time, Carmelo Anthony fights through the Gordon screen. Dahntay Jones is generally a very good defender, but here he gets distracted and lets Gordon float out to the perimeter. Nice recognition here by Thornton to see it and hit Eric with the cross-court pass. It’s as good a look as Gordon has all night, but he misses the 3PA. Still, the best possession in the series.
- [3rd, 8:21] Fred Jones is now in the game for Kaman, who picks up his fourth foul. Kaman fouls out tonight at the 4:58 mark of the 4th quarter. He has another dreadful night — eight points [3-7 FG, 2-2 FT], seven rebounds, four turnovers. His timing is off and his footwork is heavy.
Fred Jones gets it on the right wing. In front of him is Baron Davis working hard to post Billups off the right block. Jones feeds Baron, who tries to back down Billups. George Karl defenses [always underrated; his team ranks 8th in defensive efficiency this season, 10th in 2007-08] double quickly in the post, and Nene darts over to harass Baron. As Baron elevates, he realizes he doesn’t have a target — he can’t get a shot off, but his open men are behind him and cut off along the baseline. He throws it away.
- [3rd, 7:30] The Clippers don’t initiate the offense until they burn half the possession. There’s some incidental action — Jones flashes the foul line, Camby offers Gordon a half-hearted screen at the right elbow for a curl — but it doesn’t yield anything. Finally, Gordon fades to the right arc with Dahntay Jones closely on him. For the first time all half, Gordon puts down a hard dribble after a ball-fake, then drives to the hoop. Nene steps out to challenge him, which forces Eric into an awkward, airborne jumper falling toward the baseline. The ball doesn’t draw rim.
As good as Eric looks, his weakness right now is on these sorts of plays, when he’s forced to stop in traffic at mid-range. He’s small, which means he can’t see the court as well as most wings in that situation who need to pass out. Fortunately, he’s freakish enough to get off a shot in most instances, but Nene is both large and quick, so Eric has neither the space nor time to react.
After getting down 20, the Clippers put together a run toward the end of the third during which they score on their final six possessions. They get a good look for Marcus Camby along the baseline after Marcus rolls off a screen up top for Steve Novak. Camby gets to the line after a loose ball foul. Kaman gets to the line on a so-so move that draws contact from Nene. The next two, though, are very nice:
- [3rd, 1:38] Chris Kaman’s baseline screen frees Steve Novak to pop out to the perimeter. Novak loses Linas Kleiza, but Chris Andersen jumps out on Novak while Kleiza picks up Camby. Good help by Denver. Novak tries to drive against Andersen, but can make only lateral progress, so he sends the ball up top to Fred Jones. Only :05 remains on the shot clock. Fred drives right, drawing Andersen for just a instant — but it’s enough to get Novak the space in the corner. Jones immediately kicks it out to Novak for the 3PA, which falls through with :01 left on the shot clock.Novak brings the stroke, obviously, but this play is all Fred Jones — a bona fide assist. This was clearly a broken set, but Jones had the wherewithal to manufacture something, probably the only thing that was available to him. High IQ ball.
- [3rd, 0:54] The lineup is now Jones-Gordon-Novak-Camby-Kaman. While Jones holds the ball up top, Novak sets a back screen on the left side for Gordon, who makes a back cut. The Clippers get the switch — Gordon drags Kleiza with him across the baseline to the right side. Kleiza is too slow, and loses even more ground when Camby steps out to buy Gordon some more space. Jones delivers a sharp feed to Gordon just as Eric lands at the spot. Eric collects the ball and squares his shoulders simultaneously, then elevates for the 22-footer, finishing with a beautiful follow-through.
Nothing monumental. First, there’s the premise: Hey, why not try to work a mismatch with our fastest guy and their slowest guy? Good idea. Second is the execution: Novak’s screen is solid [you don't have to be Tyson Chandler], Camby does what he’s supposed to do, and the timing of Jones’ pass is perfect.
We see the full costs and benefits of Steve Novak. The presence of Balkman gives the Clippers the opportunity to use Novak, and the team looks much better offensively with him on the floor tonight. Novak’s liabilities prevent him from playing a lot of minutes against good offensive PFs, but when opponents stick a less dangerous 4 on the floor, Novak should get some burn. The trade-off can be seen in the rebounding numbers, as well as Balkman’s career night. More specific and particularly ugly sequences can be seen at [3rd, 3:57; 4th, 2:03], and there are others.
I want to highlight one Denver set, because it goes to a much-discussed issue: How to keep a guy on the floor who’s an offensive cipher without it hurting the flow of the offense. Denver’s Dahntay Jones is an atrocious offensive player. His PER is 9.06, good for 60th out of 68 shooting guards. But here, he converts an easy two. How does the worst offensive player on the floor get a gimme?
- [3rd, 6:42] First comes a 1-3 S/R with Billups and Anthony. The Nuggets get the switch, and Anthony drops low to post up Baron Davis. Baron gets close on him. There are times when Baron is disinterested, but he seems to take any affront to his bodily strength more personally and will fight guys in the post on both ends of the floor. Billups feeds Anthony off the mid-left post, and Baron gets good defensive position on him.
Up top, meanwhile, Dahntay Jones is drifting as far away from the play as possible — well beyond the arc on the weak side, where he’s a bigger threat to steal a nacho from someone sitting courtside than he is to hurt the Clippers offensively. Or so we’re led to believe. Eric leaves Dahntay Jones to help on Anthony — and who can blame him, because Anthony has a mismatch 18 feet from the basket, and Gordon is guarding Jones, a weak player on the weak side. Just as Eric arrives for the double-team, Jones makes a back cut to the basket. With the shorter Davis in front if him, Anthony fires a pinpoint pass that hits Jones in stride. Jones sidesteps Fred Jones, gets the shot up and is fouled.
This is the perfect example of how you use an offensive liability in the halfcourt game: A guy like Jones doesn’t need to be guarded unless he’s on the move to the basket, so if you’re Denver, why not send him there? Meanwhile, let the gifted players with the real skills handle the heavy lifting of creating the shot, as Anthony does here.
What Marcus Camby’s homecoming lacks in on-court exploits is compensated by the warmth of the crowd. The best moment comes just a minute before tip-off, after Camby exchanges daps and hugs with the Nuggets players and staff. There’s another wave to the crowd, then a little towhead girl in a Nuggets Camby jersey comes onto the court gives him a hug. There are few moments left in the production of an NBA game that aren’t choreographed or orchestrated in some cheesy way, but this was spontaneous, which made it real.