The league is changing and the seismic shift can be felt most conspicuously in the front-court. Some teams are getting stretchier at both the power forward and center, while others are employing smaller, more agile bigs who can beat you from any spot on the floor. The Clippers, as currently constituted, have real vulnerabilities defending this new breed of big men. They field two traditional 7-footers whose primary strengths are shot blocking, weak side help and basket protection, but who struggle with quick, versatile athletes like Carl Landry who have a range of offensive weaponry that can combat length. Landry unleashes that arsenal tonight against the Clippers’ big men.
Landry embodies all the strengths of Rick Adelman’s read-and-react offense. We see this on his first score at (1st, 8:21) when Kaman leaves him at the weak elbow to cut off a potential baseline drive by Luis Scola. Landry immediately dives to the hoop behind Kaman where he receives the feed from Scola. He’s fouled on the play, and sinks his first two of what will be 13 free throws on the night. When Brian Skinner checks in for the Clippers in the second period, Landry faces up and uses that big drop step to create room to burst past his slower defender to the rack for another trip to the stripe. Landry is particularly useful in transition because he can beat just about every big down the floor and set up position just a few feet away from the hoop, which is how he gets his first bucket from the field (2nd, 10:37).
Chris Kaman applies his size and footwork to establish his dominance down low, while Landry uses his agility, strength and capacity to manufacture shots from anywhere. Since the Rockets’ half-court program is all about creating pockets of space on the floor that players can fill for clean looks, Landry’s ability to hurt you underneath, off the dribble, and as a face-up jump shooter make him invaluable in that system.
The Clippers have scrapped their way into the top half of the league defensively, but they simply don’t have the personnel to match up against a big — and I use the term loosely — like Landry who moves his defenders around the floor. Blake Griffin is slated to be that defender, but until he takes the floor, the Clippers will have to hope that when Kaman and Camby get drawn outside, or beaten off the dribble, there’s someone on the wing who can prevent the Carl Landrys from slipping to the basket. And when faced-up one-on-one, the Clippers’ big men are going to need help dealing with that mobility. Tonight, the Clips do no such thing and, despite their length, get absolutely shredded inside by Landry’s athleticism.
It’s not all Landry. Throughout the game, the Rockets run interference at Marcus Camby, whose primary assignment is Luis Scola. Sometimes it’s Landry rolling off a high screen that diverts Camby. Other times, it’s penetration by Lowry that demands Camby’s attention. But whenever Camby steps in to help, Scola flashes to the high post or floats out to the baseline between 15 and 18 feet, or merely finds the open side of the glass and awaits a pass for a close-range shot.
How do the Rockets get such easy shots? They move the ball from side to side to scramble the defense. We see it on their first score of the night. Aaron Brooks and Chuck Hayes run a little pick-and-roll on the right side. After Camby gets lured to the action to cut off potential penetration by Aaron Brooks, the Rockets swing it around to Scola, who has floated out to that spot along the baseline. The Clippers, whose entire defense has tilted to the ball side, can’t close quickly enough, and Scola hits the 17-footer.
Figure that the Clippers’ first two defensive priorities of the evening were (1) transition defense and (2) chasing the Rockets’ shooters off the line. Mission accomplished on both fronts. The Clippers win the fast break battle 21-6, while they hold the Rockets to 5-18 from beyond the arc. Apart from Kyle Lowry and Tracy McGrady’s brief cameo, the Rockets’ perimeter players have forgettable evenings.
Instead, the Rockets adjust by drawing contact inside (the aforementioned Landry), and using their big men in step-out situations once Camby and Kaman commit themselves to help. Why? Because that’s what the defense is giving them — which is the governing principle of their offense this season. All five guys in the Rockets’ unit are forever surveying the floor to see where the defense is over-committing. When they identify that spot, they move to it. And the man with the ball is attuned to that dynamic. Next time you catch the Rockets on TV or in person, watch how each guy is scanning the floor. They’re acutely aware that shot creation won’t (can’t) come from any individual talent — though both Landry and Brooks have their opportunities against certain matchups — it’ll come from the acquisition of open space. And that open space develops because the defense gets drawn to the ball. Fill that space, reverse the ball, convert the open look. That’s what Houston does tonight, and it succeeds against a Clippers team that has a reasonably efficient offensive night of their own: 99 points on 94 possessions.
The Clippers derive their offense by exploiting their two best mismatches on the floor — Baron Davis (vs. Aaron Brooks) and Chris Kaman (vs. Houston’s committee). They work themselves a bevy of good shots, but they’re still too impatient. For every nice kickout to Eric Gordon for an open 3PA, there’s a silly jumper off the dribble early in the shot clock by the usual guilty parties. Or missed opportunities in the half-court because the man with the ball has blinders on. It’s smart to be on the attack, but it’s better to recognize that sometimes the attack — especially when the defense collapses — is a means, not an end. The best shot on the floor is often in your peripheral vision.
Baron deserves a lot of praise. He assists the four other starters at least once, and establishes the offensive flow from the beginning of the game. He even works Marcus into the offense to start the fourth quarter on a couple of pretty feeds close to the basket. The majority of Baron’s shots are inside of 10 feet, and that doesn’t include the drives to the hoop that result in four trips to the line. But more important, he’s guiding his teammates to the places on the floor where they can do the most good.
Kaman exploits single coverage for the second consecutive night, and controls the right side of the floor with a series of hooks, baseline drives, and jumpers off screens. With a few exceptions, the quality of his non-jumpers correspond with the compactness of his dribble moves. He’s introducing a touch pass to Camby on the weak side, and is anticipating double-teams more alertly. He’s often passing the ball out just before he’s blitzed or, even better, he’s spinning away from the help to create a shot for himself. Tonight’s six turnovers were less about defensive pressure and more a symptom of carelessness.