It’s somewhat difficult to evaluate Rasual Butler’s performance as the Clippers’ starting small forward this season. The efficiency numbers present a mixed picture. Counting stats like player efficiency rating (PER) conclude that he’s hasn’t helped the team a much offensively this season. His PER has lingered in the 11s, well off the league average. His on court/off court numbers tell a different story. He’s a +8 on a team that’s been outscored by a considerable margin over the course of the season. It’s a reach to call Butler a defensive stopper. His decision-making on that end of the floor, like the rest of his game, has wavered. He uses his length effectively, but can occasionally be overpowered by more physical 3s. Although he’s no Thornton, you can catch Butler blowing rotations if you watch a lot of Clippers basketball. Wednesday night, he’s part of the problem early, as the Pistons’ perimeter players are able to work their way into the paint for high-percentage shots. Tayshaun Prince alone converts five field goals inside, though not all of them can be charged to Butler. Prince, Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey repeatedly post up the Clippers smalls and have success doing so in the first half.
In the fourth, Rip Hamilton nails three 3-pointers in fewer than four minutes. The first comes courtesy of a Ben Wallace pin-down that allows Hamilton to have all kinds of space in the left corner. Eric Gordon is watching the action on the strong side of the floor, but he has to be more cognizant that one of the best screeners of his lifetime is standing between him and his man. Hamilton isn’t a lethal threat from long distance (he’s 21-of-82 from beyond the arc coming into Wednesday night’s game), but give an NBA guard enough space and it’s a virtual shootaround. That’s what happens at (4th, 4:30), which allows the Pistons to tie the game. The next two Hamilton 3-pointers are excruciating. Just as Gordon does, Butler allows Wallace to shield Hamilton. By the time the Pistons reverse the ball over to Hamilton, it’s too late for Butler to close. Hamilton’s shot gives the Pistons a 3-point lead at (4th, 3:49). The potential killer comes at (4th, 0:45), but there’s nothing more Gordon can do. He’s right up in Hamilton’s space, but the heave gives the Pistons a 1-point lead and feels fatal.
Then Butler takes over:
The 3-pointer by Butler is enormous. It’s initiated by a drive-and-dish by Baron, who attracts just enough attention from Rodney Stuckey. When Stuckey shifts his balance toward Baron, Butler is left wide open on the left wing.
Butler isn’t the long-term solution for the Clippers at the small forward, but when the Clippers can spread the floor and Baron Davis is aggressive, Butler’s presence on the perimeter forces the defense to make difficult decisions. And when he’s applying his full attention on the other end — chasing guys off the line and working through screens — he’s a useful defender. It’s a little harder now without Mr. Camby patrolling the back line, but aside from the second Hamilton 3-pointer, Butler does good work defensively during the Clippers’ stand in the fourth quarter.
In general, other than Hamilton’s 3-pointers, a ridiculous shot from Maxiell, and a poor defensive stand by Drew Gooden along the baseline (and unresponsive help from Kaman), the Clippers buckle down defensively in the fourth quarter. The unit of Blake-Butler-Outlaw-Jordan-Kaman string together a strong defensive series. They’re quick to the ball, challenge shots at the rim (Kaman, 4th, 8:07), fight over screens (Butler, 4th, 7:43), and close out on outside jumpers.
Kim Hughes has evidently backed off his bold pronouncements to transform the Clippers into an up-tempo squad. It’s a wise decision. Tonight’s game is a very deliberate affair — 87 possessions per team. The Clippers trail most of the way and it’s a frustrating slog. Schematically, they’re outplaying Detroit, finding better looks, but not converting. Gordon and Butler can’t find the net in the first half — both miss a couple of wide open attempts from beyond the arc. Apart from the missed open shots, the Clippers are working diligently in the half-court, looking for the pick-and-pop and making smart passes. Though the spacing is problematic at times, that’s more likely a product of a team that hasn’t worked together all that much. Meanwhile Jason Maxiell is launching unseemly shots from the floor. It’s madness (2nd, 9:00; 4th, 9:04). Charlie Villanueva (a 32 percent shooter from 3-point distance) drains a couple of his own. The Pistons actually shoot better from 16-23 feet (53.4 effective field goal percentage) than they do at the rim (42.9 effective field goal percentage).
The upgrade at backup point is paying dividends. Steve Blake has a gift for finding his big men at the rim (Gooden, 2nd, 11:03) and is reversing the turnover epidemic. The Clippers bring the turnover rate down to a respectable 16.1, still high but manageable. Blake sees 20 of the 48 minutes at point guard on a night when Baron Davis isn’t feeling well. Blake isn’t the zippiest point guard, but he knows how to execute the drive-and-kick, and is always aware of what’s materializing on the weak side of the floor. On a big possession early in the fourth period while the Clips are making their run, Blake finds Butler on the kickout at (4, 9:34), which pulls the Clippers even for the first time since the first quarter. Blake finishes with eight assists against two turnovers.
Kaman continues to struggle with his decision-making out of double teams (3, 2:02), but he shows off his full repertoire, including those dribble-drives when the defense is stretched. Chris is so quick to the hoop that the weak side defenders don’t have time to slide over and cut off his drive. Five of his eight field goals come in the immediate basket area and, better yet, he draws four Detroit shooting fouls, earning himself seven attempts at the stripe (5-7). He and Gooden control the glass and combine for 28 rebounds in 73 minutes. The Pistons’ bigs (Wallace-Jerebko-Maxiell-Villanueva) collect only 22 boards in 78 minutes. The Clippers are vicious on the offensive glass — a ridiculous 43.8 offensive rebounding rate and 28 second-chance points.
If the Clippers’ wings can exercise some discipline staying home defensively, if the big behind the Nash-Stoudemire screen-and-roll can act decisively, and they attack the Suns inside, the Clippers should give Phoenix a game. Hughes should consider sticking the lanky Butler on Nash, a physical Baron on Richardson and taking his chances with Gordon on Hill.