How do the Clippers build a 21-point first-half lead?
Denver, which ranks in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency, opts to run aggressive double-teams at the Clippers inside the perimeter. This gives the Clippers a barrage of easy shots from beyond the arc (Eric Gordon, 1, 9:33; 2nd, 10:30) (Steve Blake, 1st, 7:04; 1st, 5:07). The Clippers drain everything. They shoot 76.5 percent from the field in the first quarter. Kaman moves decisively in the post, spins baseline down low away from the help, works the pick-and-pop to perfection and dishes to the aforementioned open perimeter shooters with confidence.
Gordon has a strong showing. As reassuring as the stroke is, the effective playmaking offers even more encouragement. For Gordon to rise from his current plateau, he needs non-binary numbers in the assists and rebound columns (and preferably a binary one in the turnover column).
The Clippers go up 47-26 when Travis Outlaw converts a 4-point play after he’s fouled by Chauncey Billups. Denver then stops screwing around.
The Nuggets feed Carmelo Anthony at the foul-line extended, where he works one-on-one from the against Rasual Butler and gets to the hole with ease (2nd, 8:26). Then Bobby Brown happens. He misses wide-open 3-point attempt (2nd, 7:10), which precipitates a run-out by Denver that culminates in Brown’s fouling Ty Lawson at the basket. The problem runs deeper than Brown. The entire squad gets careless. We generally equate sloppiness to turnovers, and the Clippers accumulate plenty of those — nine in the second quarter and 23 for the game. But it’s the Clippers’ scattered decision-making on the defensive end that opens the door for Denver.
An example: A slow defensive rotation at (2nd, 5:23) sticks Craig Smith with Billups on the perimeter. That’s just asking for trouble. I suspect if you simulate that scenario 100 times, Billups draws the foul on Smith going on a dribble-drive 85 times. Billups puts up a rare miss on his second attempt from the stripe, but Anthony flies in untouched from 18 feet for the easy putback. The Clippers’ lead is cut to 14 – a pittance against a team like the Nuggets.
On the two trips downcourt for Denver that follow, Anthony goes coast-to-coast against the hapless Clippers’ transition defense (2nd, 4:55). Gordon throws the ball away on the next Clippers possession, resulting in another fast break by Denver during which Anthony beats everyone downcourt. All it takes is an easy outlet from Billups (2nd, 4:33). The Clippers’ lead is down to ten. With more than 28 minutes remaining on the road, it’s the kind of game in which you’d take Denver straight up if forced to make a bet — even with a double-digit lead.
The Clips go braindead in the third quarter. On a half-court possession at (3rd, 8:36), Anthony breezes past Butler with a clear path to the rim. Here’s one of the game’s three best players off the bounce, but there’s absolutely no Clipper help from the weak side. On the ensuing Denver possession (3rd, 8:01), Gooden gets stuck with Billups early, which means no one is accounting for Johan Petro. Although Petro doesn’t have much of an offensive game, he’s a professional basketball player. If you feed him on the move at the elbow, he will finish the majority of the team. Petro finishes the third quarter with 12 points, leading all scores in the period. The Clippers manage only 16 across the board in the third.
Petro’s effectiveness has a compounding effect. On the next trip down (3rd, 7:35), Billups runs a side screen-roll with Petro. At this point, the Clippers have had enough abuse at the hands of the big Frenchman. This time, Gooden quickly rotates onto the rolling Petro, while Kaman and Blake trap Billups. But this means Nene (Gooden’s initial assignment) is now free underneath the weak-side glass. Credit Kaman for hustling over as quickly as possible, but by the time he arrives, his only recourse is to foul Nene.
The Clippers make a few shots in the fourth quarter to keep it close, but ultimately get shredded by the Nuggets’ bigs working off high ball screens (Nene, 4th, 6:33). There’s either no rotation to the basket or, in the aforementioned possessions, it’s in the person of … Bobby Brown. At least Bobby shows up, even if he’s rendered helpless against Nene flying to the rim with the ball. When it’s not the Denver big men abusing the Clippers, it’s Carmelo Anthony. He draws a mismatch in the 1-3 pick-and-roll – the Nuggets’ bread and butter at (4th, 5:28). Once the switch occurs off the right block, Blake is defenseless against Anthony. The sad thing: Anthony actually passes out once the double-team arrives – but he gets the ball right back. Given a chance to switch in that narrow window, are the Clippers able to do so?
The Clippers’ defense isn’t atrocious tonight. Denver gets a good number of their points on run-outs off Clippers turnovers — but the Clippers also get lucky. Billups and J.R. Smith miss a slew of open shots they frequently bury.
Are the Clippers phoning in their effort on the defensive end?
I don’t think so. They’re moving, just without any plan or purpose. Watch a good defensive team that lacks a back-line menace — Charlotte, Cleveland or Oklahoma City. Presented with an offensive action, those defenses respond coherently. The Clippers have passable defenders, but no discernible program. If the Nuggets’ perimeter shooters hit at their normal clip, we’re talking about another defensive night with a rating of greater than 110.0/100, which is what the Clips surrender in the second half even with the misses.
Injury Note: Outlaw leaves the game in the fourth quarter with a strained right groin.