After losing to Golden State, Toronto, and Denver in recent games, you’d figure the Clippers would have a pretty decent idea of what was in store for them Sunday night against Mike D’Antoni and the New York Knicks. Since all of the aforementioned opponents play at a quick pace and feature big men who can step out and knock down jumpers, you would certainly think the defensive game plan would be fresh in the minds of the players.
Instead, the Clippers keep on keepin’ on and fall into the same bad habits that have led them to become the worst post-trade deadline defensive team in the entire NBA.
Despite shooting over 70% from the field, the Clippers end the first quarter down one to the Knicks. Not surprisingly, it’s David Lee and Al Harrington carrying the offensive load for the Knicks. Chris Kaman and Drew Gooden, perhaps hampered by years of playing against traditional big men, seem to almost forget at times that Lee and especially Harrington are capable of knocking down outside shots. Al Harrington isn’t going to beat anyone off the dribble, but he’s rarely forced to do that in the first half. Harrington and Lee combine for 32 of the Knicks’ 59 first half points on 13-for-25 shooting. Good defenses routinely strive to take away opposing offenses primary options, but the Clippers, whether by forgetfulness or bad habit, give the Knicks precisely what they want to get.
It’s a shame too, because the Clippers game plan on the offensive side of the ball is executed pretty well. Chris Kaman gets quite a few touches in the post and attacks the smaller Lee as much as he can before the Knicks swarm and double down. Kaman’s best work in the first half is done off the ball, whether it’s rolling hard to the rim off a screen or cutting to the hoop off penetration.
The prettiest play of the night [4:43, 1Q] comes from an Eric Gordon isolation on the left wing. Gordon drives with his left hand to the baseline, but Toney Douglas gets his body in front of Gordon and cuts off penetration about 8 feet from the rim. Feeling the contact, Gordon pulls off a great spin move to the middle of the floor and delivers a beautiful shovel pass to the diving Kaman who finishes at the rim.
The play has everything you want to see in a late season game: Gordon attacking the rim and working on his playmaking abilities, and Kaman moving without the ball and finishing at the tin.
As pretty as the play is, it’s followed up a disastrous play coming out of a timeout a few minutes later [1:36, 1Q]. Rasual Butler stands with the ball on the left wing, directing traffic. The Clippers look confused — no one is quite sure where they are supposed to be, and it’s unclear whether Rasual wants a clearout or not. Eventually, Rasual calls over Drew Gooden for a high pick. Rasual jab steps towards Gooden and his screen, but then inexplicably dribbles away from his pick. After a couple of bounces, Rasual picks up his dribble and floats a skip pass to the opposite wing, which is easily picked off by Toney Douglas and sent the other way for an easy two. Throughout the course of a game these things will happen. But coming out of a timeout, that’s what you get?
It’s errors like this that ultimately cost the Clippers the game. When you don’t play any defense, the margin for error in the other aspects of the game become very slim.
Never is this more evident than the fourth quarter. After being down five headed into the fourth, the Clippers get some big threes from Rasual Butler, who breaks Terry Dehere’s record for most three-pointers in a single season as a Clipper. The Clips do a nice job of utilizing their advantages in the post, putting Craig Smith in iso situations and positioning DeAndre Jordan at the rim to swallow up any misses. Offensively the plan works pretty well, as DeAndre gets some putback dunks and the Knicks start to get in a little foul trouble. But as often is the case, DeAndre’s good works on the offensive end get nullified by silly some mistakes. Whether it’s the goaltending or leaving Earl Barron (who does his best Johan Petro impersonation) all alone, Jordan gets lost a little easily and gives up some easy hoops defensively.
Maybe because they were able to step away and see the success of Smith and Jordan offensively, Kaman and Gooden emulate their performance after checking back in late in the fourth. Gooden comes in and right away positions himself right at the front of the rim, and as a result gets two huge tip-ins to tie the game.
But back come the mistakes on the ensuing possessions. Kaman takes way too long to make a move in the post and probably travels, but Drew Gooden is whistled for the three seconds in the key. The next possession, Kaman commits an offensive foul. Still tied due to a cold stretch of shooting by the Knicks, Baron Davis gets whistled for trying to take the charge in the post against the much bigger Al Harrington. After knocking down both free throws, Gordon comes back and tries to answer with a deep three over two defenders, despite having Kaman open on the roll. The shot misses.
Now up two, the Knicks go right back to their advantage in the post with Harrington, and Baron tries to sell the charge again and gets no whistle. Harrington ends up finishing on an easy shot in the paint, and the Knicks take a four point lead with :36 seconds to go.
Here’s where it really gets silly: Chris Kaman gets a quick easy bucket out of the timeout. The Clippers are now down two and there are :31 seconds on the game clock…but Eric Gordon fouls. It’s a rookie mistake from a second year player, and it dooms the Clippers. Toney Douglas knocks down both his free throws, and Rasual Butler misses a three-point attempt on the other end. And that’s your ballgame.
Do the mistakes hurt? Of course, but you expect them every now and then from the younger guys. What really hurts is that the mistakes wouldn’t have even mattered if the Clippers had played intelligent defense throughout the game. Instead, Baron Davis’ near triple-double (23-11-8), Rasual Butler’s record breaking night, and a 49.4 percent outing from the field go unrewarded, and the Clippers fall to small-ball yet again.