Sandwiched between Orlando’s early 3-point onslaught and some untimely late game offensive failings were two of the best quarters the Clippers have played all year. Clippers fans are accustomed to narrowing in on glimpses of potential, but tonight they received an extended look at what a motivated and engaged team can do, particularly on the defensive end. Coming into tonight the team was in the top ten in terms of defensive efficiency, and by holding a championship caliber team like Orlando under 100 points they proved they’re worthy of being labeled as a good defensive club.
The Magic came out and executed their game plan perfectly in the first period. Their offense ran through Howard early, and when the defense sagged down to help on Howard he kicked out to one of the many three point threats the Magic employ. Impeccable ball movement teamed with great outside shooting ability is nearly impossible to stop, especially considering Marcus Camby’s susceptibility to stretch 4’s like Rashard Lewis. The Lewis assignment is a nightmare for Camby for multiple reasons. Camby’s two biggest strengths, help-side defense and defensive rebounding, are all but neutralized by Lewis and his three point shooting ability, since Camby simply can’t abandon Lewis on the perimeter. Lewis makes Camby pay for sagging off him early in the first by going 3-for-3 from deep, but once Camby adjusts Lewis is nothing more than a highly paid decoy the rest of the night. Baron Davis also loves to drop off his man and help (sometimes to a fault), and he’s punished in the first quarter for leaving Jason Williams, who hits 3 of 4 from the perimeter.
Like any good team would, the Clippers adjust accordingly after Orlando’s hot start. Unexpectedly, it’s Chris Kaman who sparks the defensive effort by causing three turnovers in the first three minutes of the period. The difference in the Clippers defensive strategy is notable; perimeter players began to make entry passes more difficult, post players became more active in denying the ball, and closeouts quickened significantly. The Clippers effort on the defensive end forced eight Orlando turnovers and 36.8 percent shooting for the period. It’s speculative, but perhaps last year this game gets out of hand after Orlando’s three point shooting barrage. Tonight though, bolstered by sound defensive play, the Clippers battle and cut the lead to six.
There are even more defensive coaching adjustments at halftime. The Clippers start staying home on all perimeter shooters, forcing Kaman or DeAndre to man up one on one against Howard. The strategy works wonderfully: Kaman and Jordan clobber Howard any time he gets near the rim, and Howard ends up with only five points on the quarter, all from the line. With the ball movement limited and the defense less stretched out, the Magic are held to an extremely low 31.6% shooting for the third quarter. On the other side of the ball, Eric Gordon asserted himself in a variety of different ways. It started with a deep three, then a drive to the hole, a face up jumper out of the post, and was finished off with another deep ball. Gordon’s offensive assault serves as a pleasant reminder of what he’s capable of doing with the ball in his hands.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, Stan Van Gundy is a good coach, and the Orlando Magic are a really good team. For as good as Dunleavy’s adjustments were midway through the game, Van Gundy’s are even better in the fourth period. Orlando’s defenders started hounding Gordon off the ball and seemingly dared anyone who wasn’t number 10 to take any open shot outside of 15 feet. With defenders clogging up the paint and shutting down all dribble penetration, the Clippers second unit struggled mightily. Here’s a quick look at the first six field goal attempts in the fourth quarter:
Chris Kaman missed 17 footer [11:26], Al Thornton missed 21 footer [11:11], Sebastian Telfair missed 19 footer [9:52], Al Thornton missed 19 footer [9:52], Chris Kaman missed 15 footer [8:33], Rasual Butler missed 27 footer [8:07]
Chris Kaman got practically every set ran for him in the fourth, which would be fine if he wasn’t marred in a serious slump and going up against an athletic freak like Dwight Howard. Howard had clearly bested Kaman all night, blocking his shots (Howard finished with 7 blocks) and altering his jumper on multiple occasions. Was Kaman going against Howard in the post the best matchup the Clippers could have tried to exploit down the stretch? Orlando did a fine job of denying Eric Gordon the ball, but zero shot attempts for your most dynamic offensive player with the game on the line is borderline unacceptable. Even Baron Davis, who did an exceptional job of posting up and drawing the defense in on him most of the night, didn’t receive a single touch in the post. It’s not the first time this year that the offense has felt monotonous in the fourth quarter. The limitations of Chris Kaman and the failure to recognize better matchups and exploit them effectively destroyed the chances of a huge upset.
To truly be competitive, guys are going to need to knock down open shots from beyond 15 feet, and outside of Gordon and “the good” Kaman, no regular player has shown they can do that with any sort of consistency. Can this be resolved with crisper execution, or will the acquisition of a new offensive threat become necessary? This is a question General Manager Dunleavy is going to have to ask Coach Dunleavy.
The transition from cellar dweller to playoff contender can’t happen overnight, so give the team credit for resolving many of the problems they’ve come across this year. In the preseason and early on this year, the Clippers were extremely turnover prone, and they’ve made improvements in that category as the year has progressed. The Clippers defensive rebounding, a serious problem much of the year, has largely improved as of late. The defense as a whole seems to get smarter and make better adjustments on a nightly basis as well. Tonight, the Clippers exhibit their improvements in these categories. The Clippers turn it over only 12 times, allow only 7 offensive rebounds, and hold the Magic under their season average for points and offensive efficiency.
It’s easy to be swayed from this conclusion because of the final score, but the Clippers truly are making significant strides in the right direction.