The Hawks are a fascinating team to watch operate on the defensive end. In what’s essentially a copycat league, the Hawks employ a completely unique defensive scheme by switching nearly every pick and roll. Switching on all screens is something you’ll regularly see in a lazy pickup game down at the Y, but it seems borderline insane when an NBA team does it. After all, good offenses find their mismatches and exploit them and by switching on screens Atlanta provides little resistance in letting opponents pick and choose their mismatches. You want your point guard in an iso situation against one of the Hawks’ bigs? Just run a high screen at the top of the key.
However there’s a trap that lies in waiting for teams that choose this course of action: Nearly every rotation player for the Hawks can cover multiple positions and cover them well. Josh Smith is the freakiest of the bunch, but Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson, Maurice Evans and even Al Horford can cover 4 or 5 different positions. The “mismatches” teams regularly try to exploit against Atlanta are usually just a mirage. When teams try to attack Marvin Williams or Al Horford in an iso situation, it usually tilts the odds in Atlanta’s favor because the opposing offense’s flow is interrupted and Josh Smith’s help off penetration usually leads to the ball ending up somewhere in the fourth row.
Remember earlier in the year when Houston head coach Rick Adelman planted Aaron Brooks on Rasual Butler, and the Clippers almost exclusively fed Butler on the block to pretty lackluster results? Mike Bibby presents a similarly desirable matchup off the dribble for anyone with a pulse, but he also essentially serves as bait by luring in penetrating guards for Horford and Smith to swallow up whole. So how do the Clippers fare offensively against this sneaky Hawks’ defense? Did they fall victim to the trap?
For the most part, the Clippers run their stuff and avoid getting matchup happy. The most memorable exception is at [3:15, 4th Q] when Eric Gordon gets Josh Smith all alone in a clearout situation on the left wing. Any other power forward in the league, and this is a mismatch of epic proportions. But against Josh Smith? Not so much. Gordon goes left but Smith contests him the whole way and forces a miss. Can you blame Gordon for going to the rim against an opposing power forward? I suppose not, but it’s still a big miss when the Clippers desperately needed a bucket.
It’s tough to pin all the blame on the Clippers jump shooters, but the Gordon/Butler/Kaman trio shoots 6 for 27 (22%) tonight from outside of ten feet. That’s just not good enough to beat an elite team like Atlanta. Gordon is usually the steadiest of the bunch, but since returning from his toe injury he’s been marred in a pretty horrendous shooting slump. I think it’s safe to officially pronounce Rasual Butler as “streaky”. He’ll hit you for 30 one night and follow it up with a 6 the next time out. Kaman is much the same way. His jumper will look great one night, and then the next night it will completely betray him. Simply put, this team is not consistent enough from outside to play at a high level every night. As a team, the Clippers rank 27th in effective three point field goal percentage, 23rd in made threes a game, and 22nd in field goal percentage from 16-23 feet. Elite defense can make up for a lot, but perimeter shooting is something that’s going to need to improve in the future.
It’s hard not to think of that future when you watch Joe Johnson. With the possible exception of Brandon Roy, is there a player in the league who can systematically and quietly go off like Johnson can? He’s that guy that you think has 20 points when he actually has 30. He’s also that guy who is going to be on the free agent market this Summer, and the Clippers are one of the few suitors with the necessary cap room to make it happen. We’ll stay away from whether Johnson would want to come to L.A. for now, and instead focus on whether the Clippers “need” Johnson. Surely they need efficient and consistent perimeter scoring. Surely they could use a perimeter player who can get to the line and knock down his free throws as well. Probably most importantly, the Clippers could really use a crunch time scorer.
These needs look painfully obvious upon viewing Johnson’s performance tonight. When Johnson finds himself open in the corner from deep [5:30, 1st Q, 5:54 2nd Q], he nails the open looks. When the Clippers defensive intensity raises, Johnson puts his head down and gets to the line, and finishes 9 for 10 from there. With the Hawks down heading into the fourth, Johnson takes over and scores 14 of his 34 total points.
It’s just one game, but for now let’s make the answer to the question of whether the Clippers need a player like Joe Johnson an unequivocal “yes”.