The Clippers post an efficient offensive game — one that would have been exceptional if not for the bevy of offensive miscues, sloppy interior passes, a series of botched shots at the rim, missed free throws, and offensive rebounds that slide off the Clippers’ fingertips. Still, they use their length and side-to-side movement to create plenty of shots for themselves. It’s their atrocious defensive effort against a Portland team without a legitimate center, and that loses LaMarcus Aldridge midway through the first quarter, that produces one of their least satisfying losses of the season.
Trying to examine the reasons why they couldn’t defend a frontcourt featuring Juwan Howard and rookies Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph for 90 of its 96 minutes is an exercise in frustration. Chris Kaman, despite a monster offensive game (25 points, 12-19 FGs, 1-2 FTS, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 assist, 1 turnover), shares some of the blame. Marcus Camby seems slow on rotations and frequently a couple of feet from where he’d be more useful. Al’s working, but he’s in the wrong places at the wrong times. This poor defensive execution and timing result in a slew of wide open elbow jumpers for the Trail Blazers’ big men. Cunningham demonstrated in Summer League that he’s not going to embarrass himself on an NBA floor. Give him enough space to work, and he’ll get two points.
Then there are the inexplicable results on the glass. Posting a rebounding rate of 44.2 against a teeny squad like Portland means the Clippers give back their most decisive advantages — size and length. Strengths mean something only insofar as you capitalize on what they’re offering you. When you get reamed on the boards and finish even in the paint (44-44) against an undersized squad that has no right finding space down low, you’re not really a big team. If you’re not challenging guys like Pendergraph and Cunningham and making them irrelevant with your superior size and skill set, then you’re not deriving any value from your assets. You’re a small team that happens to be occupying big frames. And if a game between these two teams turns into a decathlon of little-man events, the Trail Blazers are going to win — which they do.
Sometimes I worry about the composition of the Clippers. They’re so traditional in personnel and so programmatic (qualities that help them at times), that a game against a Guerrilla unit like the whoever’s-left-standing Trail Blazers presents a challenge it shouldn’t. The Clippers play quality defensive games against teams with conventional positional personnel (not just lousy conventional teams, but good ones like Boston and Denver), but start throwing curve balls at them, and they become discombobulated. Kaman and Camby get taken out of their comfort zone defensively — and they’re very good defenders in that safe place. Just don’t introduce so many strange variables.
Please take a look at this possession, I know you’ve got to trap Brandon Roy up top, and that Dante Cunningham rolls to particularly vacant real estate on the floor. But the spacing on the right side for Portland is tight and clustered. With the ball in Roy’s hands, you can zone up on the back side 2-on-3 while someone stays in proximity to Cunningham, then closes hard on him if he gets the pass. You’re professional defenders.
The Trail Blazers don’t shoot all that well from beyond the arc, converting only five of 16, but they get some clean looks, particularly for Steve Blake. The first comes in transition, when Baron never picks him up. The second bomb occurs when Baron lingers in the lane, presumably to stay in closer proximity to Roy, rather than follow Blake to the weak side corner.
Baron, like a lot of point guards, spends most of his time playing the ball and is less instinctive defending off it. He’s drawn to the ball, but his man, Blake, functions as a wing on this set. I suppose you could say that, as a defensive unit, you can never have too many bodies between Roy and the basket given the personnel out there for Portland. But the better play by Baron here is to squeeze Blake and, at the very least, make it a much tougher pass.
The one area the Clippers defense proves acceptable is in its containment of Brandon Roy. He gets 25 points on 20 shots, but Portland afflicts its more serious damage on the Clippers with Roy on the bench. When Roy bothers the Clippers, it’s not because he’s beating his man or getting contested shots. It’s because defenders on the weak side (like Baron) are preoccupied with Roy at the expense of their primary defensive assignments.
Chris Kaman and Eric Gordon propel the Clips offensively. Gordon scores 24 points on 14 true shots, though he’s still suffering from whatever it is that’s afflicting his handle of late. He coughs up four ugly turnovers, though more than compensates for it overall. Kaman, as he should against a team with no bigs, has his way on the block and on releases from the post for jumpers.
Sebastian Telfair’s unit isn’t doing a whole lot to help the team right now. They operate better in transition, but unfortuntely they’re not capable of getting defensive stops. In the interim, maybe they should go back to that Telfair-Smith pick-and-roll with Butler hanging out in the corner.
This loss constitues a real setback, not just for the emotional toll of canceling out a hard-earned win against a top team on Sunday, but because the Clippers, with their strength, should devour a team with Portland’s deficiencies.