Sometimes I forget that watching your basketball team can be a source of actual fun. The first half of tonight’s game serves as a reminder. Granted, the Pistons are without Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson, and Rodney Stuckey, but the Clippers’ offense is fluid, which can’t be attributed entirely to those absences. The offense is particularly sharp during a stretch toward the end of the first and beginning of the second quarters.
- [1st, 4:17] This is vintage Baron Davis, c. about two years ago. In early offense, Baron takes Will Bynum with a crossover. Once he has Bynum beat, Baron knows instinctively that Kwame Brown is going to step up from the block to challenge him in the paint, which will leave Zach Randolph open. Baron snaps his pass to Randolph the instant Brown shifts his balance, resulting in an easy finish for Zach.
- [1st, 2:00] Baron beats Bynum again, this time with a ball-fake, then a spin move. Same thing happens, only this time it’s Antonio McDyess who moves up from the baseline to pick up Baron. Anticipating this, Baron delivers a sharp bounce pass to an open Randolph. Zach can’t finish, but Baron hunts down the loose ball in the right corner, drives baseline, sees Camby out of the corner of his eye diving to the hoop down the gut of the lane. Baron shuttles a no-look pass that hits Camby in stride. The layup sits atop the lip of the rim for an eternity before falling through.
- [1st, 0:40] The Pistons trap Baron Zach Randolph slips a high screen. Baron executes a perfect pass to Randolph. Amir Johnson blocks Randolph’s driving layup attempt, but Baron crashes underneath and collects the remains for a put-back.
- [1st, 0:23] Will Bynum has a huge game, but there’s not too much you can fault Baron for defensively in the first half [the second half is another story]. Here the Pistons are running rotating S/Rs up top for Bynum, but Baron fights through both Johnson, then Jason Maxiell, to maintain laser focus on Bynum. Bynum finally gets Baron to bite on a crossover. Bynum penetrates, meanwhile Baron sees that Camby [Maxiell's man] will pick up the driving Bynum. Baron immediately rotates out to Maxiell. When Bynum kicks the pass out to Maxiell, Baron is all over it. He wrestles the ball away from Maxiell; before he can get across the time line, he’s fouled. Baron misses both free throws, but that’s not really the story.
Baron is starting to play well. Two reasons: He’s moderating his shot selection, and for the first time this season, he’s using his creative intuition to find opportunities on the floor for other guys, rather than settling. One of my objections to the Baron Davis discussion is this notion that somehow a halfcourt offense stifles creativity. Ever watch Tony Parker or Brandon Roy? Their instincts flourish even though they operate in slower-paced offenses. I’m not validating Mike Dunleavy’s offense, but to the extent problems exist in his patterns, schemes, and inclinations, “structure” isn’t the issue. Davis and the Clippers both have one of their better offensive nights of the season [Davis: 19-7-8 on 62% TS; Clippers 108.0 Offensive Efficiency], yet they do it with only 83 possessions and six fast break points. I don’t want to be overly gushy in praise of Baron, but there seems to be an earnest attempt to reverse the spiral that hurled the first four months of his season into crisis mode. If the progress can be sustained, the Clippers have a chance to be watchable, if nothing else.
- [2nd, 11:39] The story of this set isn’t the solid work by Mike Taylor to get himself a clean look after rubbing Bynum off Marcus Camby [I'm not sure how many 18-foot jumpers you want Taylor taking]; it’s watching Walter Herrmann attach himself to Steve Novak. Herrmann looks like a character in a Wes Anderson movie and it’s clear his assignment is to never leave Novak, not even for a second. He pushes past a Kaman back screen on the low block to chase Novak out to the right arc. When Novak gets his first shot attempt about 30 seconds later on a fade cut, Herrmann is trailing closely. Novak rushes his shot, which results in an unusually ugly miss.
- [2nd, 10:33] One of my favorite sets of the game for the Clippers, though it’s probably more of a reaction off a good read by Chris Kaman. Taylor and Kaman run a high S/R. When Bynum and Maxiell trap Taylor, the little point guard hits Kaman diving to the basket. Johnson rotates over to pick up Kaman, so Chris slings a pass to Camby, who’s been left alone. Easy layup. The Clippers lead by eight.
- [2nd, 10:20] The next trip down for Detroit, Chris provides good help on the penetration, blocking Bynum’s shot. When Maxiell grabs the rejection, Chris stands tall, giving up no ground, prompting Maxiell to force an awkward 7-footer that falls way short.
The Clippers don’t shoot poorly in the second half, some missed layups notwithstanding. Their problems are almost entirely defensive. After a couple of early misses, the Pistons convert on 11 of their next 13 possessions and turn a six-point deficit into an eight-point lead. It starts strangely enough when Kwame Brown punishes Kaman with a couple of devastating post moves that must be the result of some momentary biomechanical glitch. After that, it gets ugly:
- [3rd, 8:07] Detroit goes into McDyess on the right block. When he kicks the ball out to Bynum up top, the second-year PG out of Georgia Tech dekes Baron with a fake pass to Tayshaun Prince out on the wing. Once Baron is off-balanced, Bynum takes it all the way to the rack.
Where’s the help? Thornton is running hot. As he rotates, he actually overruns Bynum. At least Al legitimately gives it a go. Brown does a good job pinning Kaman down on the weak side. Randolph? Please.
- [3rd, 7:24] We’ve seen in recent weeks that Thornton isn’t a horrendous on-ball defender — he’s merely below average. As a team defender, Al is rarely where he’s supposed to be. For some reason, Al has left Tayshaun Prince alone in the left corner to…wait for it…double-team Kwame Brown. To add insult to injury, it’s not as if Thornton cuts off the pass out to the corner, something that could mitigate his lousy decision. Brown makes the pass, and Prince makes the 3PA.
- [3rd, 6:01] Prior to this play, the Pistons convert on a break off a Chris Kaman fumble. Here, Baron overplays for the steal a little bit on Bynum, which gives the little PG an opportunity to blow past. Where’s the help? Randolph, without moving his feet, swipes at Bynum at the foul line. Then Camby is caught-off guard by how quickly Bynum glides into the paint.
- [3rd, 4:59] The Clippers get their first stop in over three minutes on the previous possession. The next trip down, Detroit isolates for Prince out on the right wing. Prince, in triple threat position, has Thornton in front of him. A right dribble, then a crossover behind the back, step back, shoot, net.
Twenty seconds later, Prince is the trailer on a break off another Clipper turnover.
- [3rd, 3:32] At first, it appears as if Baron and Camby might defend the Bynum/Maxiell high S/R effectively. Camby shows, something he does a few times a year. Ironically, he overplays Bynum in the backcourt, as the PG breezes by him. Just as Baron is about to recover, Bynum unleashes a little hesitation move that freezes Baron. Bynum bursts left all the way to the hoop.
- [3rd, 3:04] The Clippers have developed this bad habit where their weak side defenders on a given set get completely lost in the possession. Here, Eric Gordon plays off Aaron Afflalo — not a crime, because Afflalo hasn’t hit anything all night, so you’d like Gordon to be in a position to help if he can. When Camby scoots over to take away the paint from any potential Prince drive, Gordon finds himself on Maxiell, which means Afflalo is all alone in the far corner. Prince sees the floor extremely well, and his fires a skip pass to Afflalo. Gordon has been lured so far underneath that Baron has to close. The 3PA is good. The Pistons lead by eight.
The Pistons don’t have a single player on the floor that warrants a double-team, which makes so many of the defensive miscues even more frustrating. The plague spreads in the fourth quarter. Walter Herrmann drains three 3PAs in the period, the first on a blown rotation after Kaman steps out to trap Prince, a guy who knows how to make a defense pay with a single pass. 30 seconds later, Herrmann gets his second on a wide open look, because the Clippers’ zone defense coming out of the timeout never accounts for him in the left corner. A few minutes after that, nobody picks up Herrmann in transition. He spots up at the exact same spot deep on the left side, and hits another 3PA.
The lapses come in a variety of flavors. There’s a set at [4th, 4:18] where Prince holds the ball on the right side at mid-range, with McDyess standing just to his left at his favorite spot on the court — faced-up at 20 feet, where he’s automatic. Al hedges between Prince and McDyess. We’ve seen this before. Al fails to commit one way or the other. He needs to either fully help and cut off the angle back to McDyess, or stay home. Prince and McDyess are too smart not to take advantage of a defender’s indecisiveness. A quick pass to McDyess beats Thornton, and the face-up jumper is good.
The Clippers post a defensive efficiency number tonight of 132.9. I’m not sure that figure can be placed in a proper perspective. Consider that Sacramento is 30th in the league with a 111.1 points/100 possessions. The Clippers are nearly 20% worse than that against an average offensive team that’s missing four of its five most prolific players. Even the Clippers’ offensive explosion against Washington on Wednesday [129.0/100] wouldn’t have been able to buffer them against their defense tonight. Can this be remedied? That’s unclear. The Clippers aren’t a very quick defensive team, particularly with Randolph, Kaman, and Davis on the floor together. Their quickest player’s motor is compromised by his terrible defensive instincts. And the team’s best man-to-man defender is an undersized rookie who hasn’t yet grasped the nuances of NBA team defense.