Hours before the Clippers knocked off the Lakers on Wednesday, I asked Mike Dunleavy how a coach can tell the difference between real, permanent growth and the fleeting illusion of improvement.
“You ask yourself, ‘Is the team able to do what it wants to do?’”
Wednesday night, the Clippers got most of what they wanted offensively courtesy of Baron Davis, who is playing his most prolific stretch of basketball since he arrived in Los Angeles.
What accounts for that uptick? It’s probably a combination of factors.
Stops Matter & Transition
The Clippers, above all else, want stops.
With Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman on the back line, Rasual Butler and Eric Gordon on the wings and a motivated Baron Davis providing pressure on the ball, they have enough size, strength, shot-blocking and guile to be a good defensive unit. When that defense clicks, the Clippers notch big wins — Denver, Boston, Lakers, at Oklahoma City.
The to-run-or-not-to-run discussion surrounding the Clippers always struck me as a theoretical debate. While there are teams who are gifted at pushing the ball after made baskets (Houston/Aaron Brooks, Phoenix /Steve Nash, etc), transition opportunities come off defensive stands and rebounds. After residing in the bottom five of the league in defensive rebounding rate for a good part of the season, the Clippers have been doing much better work on the defensive glass. Last night, they created 21 transition opportunities for themselves, and generated points on 14 of those 21 chances.
The Clippers’ defensive schemes looked not unlike what they unleashed on Portland and Brandon Roy on Monday night. The Clippers’ traps were smart, strategic, and generally came from the place on the floor least likely to produce a high-percentage shot.
“We were trying to go quick at [Kobe Bryant],” Dunleavy said. “He’s so great. He knows the double-teams are coming, so he just makes his move faster. We were trying not to come off Bynum, because Kobe does a great job of finding him. We were willing to give outside shots to other guys. We want to get our rotations out there and wanted to contest shots, but if it comes down to Kobe in the post or somebody else taking a shot from the outside, we’ll take the other guy.”
Watch the latter half of the fourth quarter and you can see the level of alertness in the Clippers’ defense behind the Bryant traps. The Clippers defenders are communicating, pointing to one another, shifting their weight with purpose, but rarely cheating absently.
When you pair that defensive commitment with guys running hard toward the rim on the outlet, you get possessions like that nice break at [4th, 4:59] where Craig Smith gets to the basket underneath the Lakers’ slow transition defense. Rasual Butler feeds him from the perimeter for an easy layup, and the Clippers extend their lead to six — a margin that never narrows.
Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Mike Dunleavy each made independent comments lauding the chemistry — all three used that phrase — between Baron and Chris on the pick-and-roll. Remember how fluid Sam Cassell and Elton Brand were with that side screen-roll? How Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins operate the Boston S/R to perfection? How Nash makes every big he’s ever worked with a master?
It seems like the most basic action you can run. It’s not a skill like shooting the ball and it doesn’t require too much body control — just patience and precision.
But in some respects those qualities are harder to perfect than a shooting stroke. Over the past week or so, Baron and Chris seemed to have established the symbiosis a point guard and his big man needs to make plays in the halfcourt.
“If [the Lakers] wanted to play soft, Baron made shots over the top,” Dunleavy said. “And if they stepped up, he hit [Chris] Kaman on the roll or swung the ball and found open guys.”
Baron and Chris picked apart the Lakers on those pick-and-rolls — from every spot on the floor and, as Dunleavy elaborated, with flawless reactions. On the second possession of the third quarter, they run it on the side. The Lakers anticipate it quickly and blitz Baron against the sideline. So how does our dynamic duo counter? By having Kaman slip toward the hole. Baron bounces the pass between Bryant and Bynum to Kaman on the move, and Chris finishes against the Lakers’ collapsing weak side defenders with an off-balance fling at the basket while falling to the floor. He draws the foul and the Clips go up 12.
The permutations of this pick-and-roll are numerous. Sometimes Baron and Chris take advantage of a slow recovery as Chris rolls, and sometimes Chris realizes he has the space he needs for his jumper (which doesn’t fall at a proficient rate Wednesday night, though these are shots you want him taking). And sometimes Baron creates the space to launch a 17-footer over a much shorter Derek Fisher. Notice 17… not 21 and, therefore, a much higher-percentage shot.
Getting the Wings Going
Eric Gordon didn’t light it up, but he and his counterpart on the wing, Rasual Butler, provided the spacing that Baron and Chris needed to execute many of those sets. Gordon played a particularly intelligent game. Check out the possession at [2nd, 9:07]. When Shannon Brown crowds him on the left side of the perimeter, Gordon collects the pass from Telfair and drives hard to his right. Odom, who’s on Craig Smith (strategically placed high to give Eric an open lane to the hoop), doesn’t have time to get in Eric’s path. Eric seals himself off from Odom, elevates strongly and converts the layup.
Butler had one of his more complete games of the season: A couple of well-timed 3s, though his overall shot percentage was nothing dazzling. What I liked about his overall performance was that he played in that Tayshaun Prince mold — gathering rebounds, making sharp entry passes for assists, and playing both strong man defense and using his length to cordon off the Lakers’ weak side options.
Nobody will ever have cause to complain on the nights Butler is an accurate sniper from the arc, but really productive small forwards don’t just 3-and-D. They facilitate the offense as alternate perimeter playmakers. Butler did that Wednesday night.
Maximizing Your Assets
Craig Smith will be more useful some night than others. Against the Lakers’ bigs, he’s a handful. That’s especially true when the Clippers are in an up-tempo mode. Smith runs the floor extremely well and beelines to the rim in transition as well as anyone in the league — which explains his 59.2 field goal percentage. Once Smith has position in the post, that thick body of his has an uncanny way of getting to the rack. I have no idea how he does it apart from being very good at preserving his direct route to the rim by sealing off his defender. Everyone loves easy baskets, but you need the personnel to get them.
Then there’s Marcus Camby. The 13 rebounds come as no surprise, and I suppose the five dimes in 28 minutes don’t either. Having a big man who can makes plays in a high-low scheme from the elbow is indispensable. On a night when Baron is the best playmaker in basketball, Butler is creating opportunities and Camby is making pinpoint interior passes and zippy feeds from the perimeter, the Clippers’ ball movement is like a pinball game.
That’s how you beat one of the top defenses in the league.