The Clippers’ size is one of their great advantages and one of the primary ways they’re able to control basketball games for sustained stretches when they’re playing well. When that asset isn’t on the floor, the Clips are easier both to score on and to guard. Both last night at Memphis and tonight at New Orleans, Chris Kaman’s absence deprives the Clips of that upper hand.
There are moments when Kaman’s absence is strongly felt in the halfcourt. At (3rd, 5:40), Baron Davis is being smothered on the wing. When Kaman is healthy, this is a set when a simple entry pass over the top of the defenders by Davis to Kaman would put the Clippers in a legitimately decent position to score. Chris would draw the defenses low, opening up spots the help defenders have vacated. Tonight, those possessions often cultivate nothing, as the Hornets’ defenders didn’t budge. Although Brian Skinner turns in one of his better games during this current stint with the Clips (14 points on 6-for-9 shooting in 19 minutes), he doesn’t tilt the defense when the ball is in his hands.
Defensively, it’s a stretch to call Kaman an enforcer, but he’s a big, agile body. Chris has become a pretty decent pick-and-roll defender (far and away the best among the Clippers’ bigs), who runs enough interference to slow the action. Tonight, those qualities are missed against one of the better screen/roll teams in the League. West gets his regular diet of attempts, but Emeka Okafor has even more success against the Clips’ scattered halfcourt defense (1st, 6:54; 1st, 0:32; 3rd, 0:03). He also hurts DeAndre and Skinner in isolation with some not-so-fancy-but-very-serviceable post moves (1st, 10:31; 1st, 3:21; 3rd, 7:50; 3rd, 4:30; 4th, 11:03). When the Clips’ bigs drift too far out, Okafor squeezes underneath the defense to put himself in position for easy feeds and layups. (1st, 1:12; 3rd, 3:27).
The game turns into a smallball affair for long stretches, a dynamic that takes hold toward the end of the first half. For the Clips it’s a little too small at times — witness Stojakovic posting on Gordon. No matter what the defensive scheme, Peja can’t miss tonight. He scores 20 points in 32 minutes, including 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Peja has a gift for spotting up ahead of the play in transition while the defense is paying almost exclusive attention to Chris Paul (1st, 1:44). In one respect, the Clips’ aren’t victims of smallball — they dominate the offensive glass, gobbling up 17 offensive boards.
The Clippers’ ability to get to the line also keeps in the game longer than they rightfully should be. They work themselves 32 free throw attempts by attacking the rim. Unfortunately, the Clips’ poor 3-point shooting offsets that strength. They hit only 1 of 14 from long range and, like Tuesday night against Memphis, many of them are good, clean looks. Eric Gordon is now enduring a serious slump from beyond the arc. He’s 2 for his last 21. After a few open misses tonight, he begins to shy away from the 3-ball, opting instead to step in for a closer-range 2.
Blake Griffin’s pending season-ending surgery eclipses any on-court stories in long-term import, but the Clippers’ capacity to reverse their current mini-slide rests squarely on the back of Chris Kaman. Jermaine O’Neal best explained Kaman’s centrality to the Clippers after Miami’s loss at Staples Center, “We’re a help team. It makes it very difficult to help a lot off the bigs. When you leave those guys, they tend to make you pay. When you face teams that actually give the ball to the big guys, it’s tough to defend.”
The truth is that most NBA defenses are help teams. Without Kaman, the Clippers don’t offer the same challenge to the defense — and they’re also an easier team to score on.