My assignment Tuesday night at Staples Center was to examine the Utah Jazz and figure out why they’re the playing the best basketball in the League. Utah has been running much of the same stuff since the Harding Administration through its flex offense. Aside from its cool name, the flex has a lot of appealing qualities, not the least of which is its egalitarianism.
Every player is screener and screenee, a passer and a recipient. Everyone moves and everyone has the ability to make a play no matter where on the court he’s standing. There’s something democratic about that, but the flex works because players who can do that many things in the half court are extremely difficult to defend. The hurler with only a single pitch is far more hittable than the maestro with a full repertoire. The same thing holds true in basketball. A guy who never moves off the block is an easier defensive assignment than the same big man who darts all over the place — setting screens, coming hard off screens, working high as a facilitator, working on the low end of that facilitation down in the post. It’s tough to defend someone who might do any thing at any time.
Prior to the game, Clippers coach Kim Hughes described the difficulty of defending the flex. “If you cut hard, you cause players to move at a high rate of speed and make decisions on the move,” Hughes said. “Players notoriously have a tough time doing that.”
As we witness tonight, the flex offense might be old, but it isn’t stale. The Jazz shred the Clippers, generating 109 points on 93 possessions. For all the Clippers’ failures Tuesday night, they actually score at a reasonable rate (106.5 per 100 possessions, which is Lakers/Orlando territory), measurably better than their average efficiency — the anemic fourth quarter notwithstanding. And as bad as that fourth quarter was offensively (15 points on 21 possessions, 71.4 efficiency), it was just as miserable defensively (138.1).
The Clippers simply can’t get stops. They lead 84-80 to begin the final period. After a driving C.J. Miles gets whistled for the charge on the opening possession of the quarter, the Jazz convert on seven of their next eight possessions, an 18-5 run that leaves them with a 98-89 advantage.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Carlos Boozer says after the game. “Ronnie Price got us that lead all by himself and we took off from there.”
- (4th, 11:24) We have a Mehmet Okur screen up top for Price that absolutely baffles Chris Kaman. After his initial show, Kaman has his weight shifted left and is caught off-guard when Price turns the corner to the left of the screen.
- (4th, 10:31) Nobody’s fault here. Ricky Davis stays with Price and lures him into a 27-footer at the top of the floor deep into the shot clock. Coming into the game, Price had drained 8 of 27 3-pointers on the season. He goes 3-for-3 from beyond the arc on Tuesday.
- (4th, 9:42) Again the Clippers defend well. With :04 remaining on the shot clock, Price buys himself a modicum of space with a little shoulder-shake, steps back and nails a 25-footer.
The latter two of those three possessions (Price’s improbable 3-pointers, neither completely uncontested), along with the next, break the Clippers.
- (4th, 9:10) Want another reason to like what Utah does? They actually set back screens for perimeter players to get paths for offensive boards. That’s how C.J. Miles is able to fly in from the wing and slam home Andrei Kirilenko’s missed 20-footer (not a great shot).
- (4th, 8:22) Price collects the remains of a very short Gordon 19-footer. He kicks ahead to Wesley Matthews on a run-out layup. For a team that says it 37wants to run, the Clippers aren’t quick to flip the switch over to defense. They hand this transition bucket to Utah.
- (4th, 7:45) “[Miles] made some great plays,” Boozer says after the game. “He was a playmaker out there coming off that pick-and-roll. He hit me a couple of times.” This is one those times, aided by lousy pick-and-roll coverage by the Clippers. I can’t imagine the smart way to defend a C.J. Miles-Boozer high S/R is to have both Al Thornton and Craig Smith trap Miles, leaving one of the most sure-handed roll men in basketball a completely open lane to the hoop. Kaman is way too late. He fouls Boozer on the finish — a basket + one. Kaman then barks something to Smith. An incredulous Baron Davis also scampers over to direct traffic. An expressionless Eric Gordon shakes his head.
- (4th, 7:20) Good teams are always one step ahead. The Jazz go back to the Miles-Boozer S/R, but this time the Clippers have it covered. Thornton and Camby (now back in for Smith) run a quick trap at Miles while Kaman immediately rotates to pick up Boozer on the roll to the basket. All well and good for the moment, but keep in mind that Kaman has left Okur out on the arc to pick up Boozer low. Gordon now has to attend to both Okur and Matthews along the weak side arc, with Davis chasing Price around. The instant Price clears from the right side to the left along the baseline, Matthews dives hard to the basket underneath Davis. He’s met there by a pinpoint laser from Miles. It’s gorgeous to watch: Layup + one.
The Clippers’ offensive ineptitude down the stretch contributes to the loss, but it’s not nearly as debilitating as their incapacity to stop Utah. After this series, the Clips get a wide open look from beyond the arc for Eric Gordon, then a layup + one for Gordon. On the six possessions that follow, then actually score score on four of the next six trip downcourt after that. For theatrics, Baron Davis’ missed layup carries some tragic symbolism as the coup de grace, but do you have any inkling the Clippers could beat Utah Tuesday night down four, without the ball, only 76 ticks left on the clock?