There’s always a danger in small sample sizes, but anyone looking for an illustration of how Rasual Butler improves the Clippers offense can examine the third quarter of Monday night’s game. Down 16 points to the Warriors at halftime, the Clippers start the second half with a lineup of…
- Baron Davis (PG)
- Eric Gordon (SG)
- Rasual Butler (SF)
- Marcus Camby (PF)
- Chris Kaman (C)
The Clippers rip off a 15-3 run in the first four minutes of the third quarter. At one juncture during the spurt, they score on six consecutive possessions, and they don’t yield a field goal to Golden State until the 5:20 mark of the period (on a Andris Biedrins tip-in of a Chris Kaman’s blocked shot on Monta Ellis).
The first couple of possessions of the half are bumpy for both teams. Butler and Gordon find themselves at the same spot on the perimeter in the first half-court set, and then Butler fires an off-balanced runner on the second. But once the Clips settle down, the offense begins to hum — something that can be attributed directly to Baron Davis.
The brimming optimism surrounding the Clippers features multiple storylines. For all the fanfare over Blake Griffin and the congratulatory nods to the front office for turning over the roster, the restoration of Baron Davis could emerge as the most compelling narrative.
When Baron, bringing the ball up the court, sees Monta Ellis lollygagging his way back on defense, he shifts into high gear and gets to the rack. Biedrins, who is guarding the basket, has only one course of action: Foul. Baron drains both free throws.
As Ellis collects the rock and pushes it ahead, Baron pressures him in the backcourt all the way up the floor. When Biedrins sets a high screen for Ellis, Baron fights it off, ultimately poking the ball loose and getting himself a layup.
On the next Clipper possession — with Ellis giving him all kinds of space along the arc (credit Kaman for running some interference) — Baron can’t resist the 3-off-the-dribble, but nails it. Then, Baron slaps another ball away from Ellis in the backcourt, diving after it and drawing a foul in the process, a sequence that earns him an ovation from the crowd.
Coming out of the timeout, the Clippers settle into a half-court offense. Kelenna Azubuike draws Butler on the perimeter, and it’s here you begin to glimpse how Butler’s presence complicates decisions for the defense.
Butler holds the ball along the arc on the right side, waiting for Eric Gordon to swing around a Marcus Camby screen and land at the top of the circle. When Eric arrives at that spot, Butler dishes the ball over to him. Azubuike instinctively begins to move off Butler to help out Anthony Morrow, who’s trailing. But Azubuike hesitates to leave a sharpshooter like Butler, which gives Gordon just enough space to drain a 20-footer.
After a Davis-Kaman S/R generates an improbable Marcus Camby 3-pointer, the Clips go right back to that S/R again. This time, Butler sneaks behind the action, setting up at the top of the arc. When Azubuike drops down to lend help on Davis’ penetration, Baron kicks the ball out to Butler, who drains the 3. Butler hits 5 of 7 of his 3-point attempts on the night.
As the third quarter progresses, a coherent offensive philosophy begins to emerge for the Clippers. We see it at the 6:37 mark — another quick, high slip screen on the left side with Davis and Kaman. Baron dishes the ball on the button to Kaman in motion, and the instant the weak side help overcommits, Chris whips a pass cross-court to a wide open Butler, who drains yet another 3.
Success breeds success. Because a minute later, Baron storms downcourt again with Chris for an early, high S/R. Azubuike has learned his lesson — he’s not about to leave Butler alone on the arc this time. The result? With open space in front of him (because the help has stayed home), Baron penetrates directly past his old teammate Biedrins, taking it all the way to the hole to give the Clippers their first lead since 7-6.
This discussion demands all kinds of disclaimers: It’s preseason; the Golden State Warriors are a horrendous defensive team; Rasual Butler won’t hit at a 71 percent clip from beyond the arc all season.
But for every qualifier, there’s a legitimate rationale: Spacing matters, and a team can best capitalize on that spacing when it has a motivated point guard who can penetrate and see the floor. Giving that point guard two capable wings on the perimeter helps him do his job.
“[Butler] stretches the defense,” Davis said after the game. “His shooting ability and the way he catches fire … and then you’ve got Eric Gordon over there, another phenomenal scorer you’ve got to pay attention to. It just makes it easy. I know where to find them.”
Lost in all this is Chris Kaman. Barring injury, Chris will be setting more high screens for Baron Davis than anyone else. Monday night, Kaman again executed the frenetic early action Baron likes to run. It’s a different flavor of pick-and-roll offense than the deliberate, but crisp Cassell-Brand side screen-roll. That was orderly, whereas Baron likes to wreck havoc.
If Chris can clear space for Baron, then either roll to the hoop, find a spot for himself from 15-17 feet, make that pass out to Gordon or Butler on the perimeter, or just draw his man away from the basket, then the Clippers’ offense has the potential to be very efficient.
If, and only if, the right personnel is in place.