On Wednesday night the Clippers successfully exploited their individual mismatches to the tune of 120 points, and for the first half of tonight’s game it’s more of the same. Chris Kaman wins the ambidextrous influenced battle with David Lee early, scoring multiple times on Lee in single coverage with a variety of pretty post moves. Eric Gordon plays pinball and draws contact and gets to the foul line. Al Thornton also uses his quickness and strength advantages in his mismatch to get to the rim. For 24 minutes, everything clicks for the Clippers.
The struggles as of late to slow down perimeter oriented teams have been evident, but the first half performance tonight is a clinic on how to force a one-dimensional team away from their strength. In previous games, the Clipper defenders have shown the tendency to be zombie-like in their closeouts; they have their arms raised, but they plod along aimlessly, making them susceptible to good shooting. Tonight though, we see crisp closeouts, particularly from Al Thornton, who all but sprints at his man to ensure no clean threes are allowed. The Clippers succeed wonderfully in the first half – the Knicks go for 4 for 9 from deep in the first half, with the latter number being the most important. Remember, this is the same Knicks unit that jacked up 47 (!) threes against Chicago and averaged 28 attempts a game coming into tonight. At least for 24 minutes, the Clippers lock in on chasing shooters off the line, and it works.
The positive work on both ends results in a 16 point halftime lead for the Clippers. With the MSG crowd completely out of the game, and the Knicks showing no life on either end, the Clippers appeared poised to cruise to another big win. Then something happened: The Knicks started playing as if every possession were the last of the game. Three Clippers turnovers in the first 4 possessions of the second half creaked open the door just enough to allow some light to shine through for the Knicks, and they charged back into the game bolstered by a renewed defensive intensity and an overall superior effort to that of their counterparts. The pnce easy entry passes to Kaman on the block were all but taken away by swarming perimeter play and active post defense. When Kaman did eventually get the ball on the post, he was immediately doubled on every touch. The Knicks clearly intended to let someone other than Kaman (who was methodically destroying single coverage early on) beat them in the second half. After the Knicks fronted, doubled, sandwiched and generally confused Kaman, the Clippers offense fell apart at the seams. Poor spacing, lazy passing, and no off-ball movement turned the Clippers offense into mush.
With the offense struggling to get clean looks, the Clippers defense began to show its own deficiencies. The previously mentioned early third quarter turnovers allowed transition opportunities for New York, which sparked their offensive outburst. Non-coincidentally, the main culprits were the type of players the Clippers typically struggle to deal with: a stretch four (Gallinari) and an active, offensive rebounding big man (Lee). The pair combined for an incredible 23 of the 30 Knicks third quarter points and were they key cogs in the Knicks comeback. The Clippers inability to defend simple Duhon-Lee pick and rolls hurt them more than anything. We’ve previously dissected how the Clippers big men defend pick and rolls, and they’ve been better as of late, but tonight’s blame can mostly be pinned on the guards, Eric Gordon and Baron Davis. Time and time again the two allowed themselves to get taken out by even the most obvious of picks. Duhon strolled into the paint on multiple occasions late with Baron or Gordon nowhere to be found. All things told, Gordon probably played his worst stretch of the season tonight in the second half on both sides of the ball.
While the end of game sequence should not have ever mattered considering the Clippers hot start, it did. Baron’s 28 foot heave to give the Clippers the lead with 36 seconds left was about as desperate of an attempt you’ll see all year. After that lucky three, the Knicks were the beneficiary of some luck of their own in the form of a blind tip in from David Lee that rolled around the rim and fell through. We’ll have video of the final possession once it becomes available, but the look Rasual Butler gets down 2 with the clock winding down is about as good as it gets. It may *feel* wrong that Gordon, Kaman or even Baron didn’t get the last shot, but consider the circumstances: You’re on the road with absolutely zero momentum, and one of your better perimeter shooters gets a mismatch and a wide open look to end the game. Nine times out of ten, Butler hits that shot.
Instead, he misses, and the Clippers get to spend their trip to Philadelphia wondering how they managed to lose this game.