Clipperblog contributor Charlie Widdoes breaks down the Clippers most recent frustrating loss.
The last time these two teams met, it took two overtimes to decide the final outcome. The Jazz won that night, but there was plenty to like about the Clippers’ play, including a performance by Eric Gordon that would foreshadow his emergence as a budding NBA star. On Sunday, the Clippers were only able to hang with Utah for a little more than a half before losing, 109-97, reminding us that it takes more than Gordon and Blake Griffin to compete with the top teams in the Western Conference. When both teams shot over 50% from the floor in the first half, one had to wonder if the Clippers could sustain that level of play so dependent on the duo. Ultimately, they couldn’t, and it comes as no surprise that a few great individual efforts came up short against Utah’s balanced attack.
In what appears to be a developing theme, Griffin was the best player on the court in this game, but it was not nearly enough for the team to win. He was unstoppable in the first half, displaying a full arsenal of moves scoring off deep pin-downs and fallaway jumpers alike for 21 points, five rebounds and 5 assists. He continued to show that he is capable of being the focal point on offense, knowing when to score and when to find teammates for open looks. During one sequence starting at 1:58 in the second quarter, the Clippers ran the same set three consecutive times, each one resulting in an opportunity created by Griffin. Eric Bledsoe and Brian Cook ran a pick and roll at the top of the key, with Cook getting the ball off a pop at the elbow. From there, Cook would make the entry pass to Griffin, who usually does and excellent job getting position by the low block. Griffin attracts such attention that he finds open cutters for layups twice, the other time his presence allows Cook the space to launch a three.
We know that most NBA teams can focus on one player and make other people beat them. At halftime, the Jazz made an effort to stop Griffin and make someone else beat them, and the Clippers were unable to adjust. Utah assistant coach Tyrone Corbin plainly stated that their goal in the second half would be to do a better job on the pick and roll, as well as pressuring Griffin. What he didn’t specify was their intention to shift to a zone, but it was crucial to the course of the game and enabled them to blanket Griffin with coverage in the second half. The result was a complete inability for the Clippers to create good look which led to opportunities for Utah to run off of turnovers and long rebounds. The Clippers frequently stalled, asking Griffin to create offense off the dribble from the top of the key against a defense waiting to collapse.
Like usual, when things were working for the Clips, Griffin and Gordon had great success on elbow pick-and-rolls. Gordon works tirelessly to get the ball, usually on the wing, and does a nice job probing, a threat to get to the hole, pull up, or find teammates. Today, he has nine assists, benefitting from Griffin’s uncanny ability to finish and teammates spacing along the perimeter. Al-Farouq Aminu, in particular, stands to benefit from Gordon and Griffin’s two-man game if he can maintain good spacing because of his ability to knock down threes and use his body control to get to the hoop.
Despite the offensive success of Griffin and Gordon in the first half and the struggles in the second, the Clippers’ defensive effort to begin the game should have indicated a long day for the home team. Utah got open looks on almost every possession early on, the Clippers extremely slow to rotate and help on simple screens, cuts and drives. Utah’s methodical offensive sets with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson operating out of the high post proved very difficult for a Clippers team that struggles with the most basic defensive principles to stop. The game was a testament to the notion that in basketball the group that works together generally winds up ahead of the team made up of individuals, no matter how talented those individuals may be.