Over the past few years, we might have talked about this type of game as a “must-win.” Beating an obviously inferior team at home would have jumped out as a prerequisite to any chances of the Clippers making the playoffs.
Fast forward to this season, and it’s still a must-win. Only, with Chris Paul out and the team having to forge ahead without him, amidst the elevated expectations for which he is primarily responsible, the consequences of a loss are of a different nature.
The goal is no longer just to make the postseason, but to play well into it. And Monday’s matchup with the 3-10, Brook Lopez-less Nets provided an opportunity for the Clippers to take two steps toward that end: 1) to get one win closer to a top-4 seed and home court advantage in the playoffs, and 2) to figure out how to succeed without Chris Paul on the floor.
Fortunately for Vinny Del Negro and company, they did both. They brought their division-leading record to 7-3 with another “W” and created a blueprint for how to beat — and how they could very easily lose to — “teams they should beat,” without Paul.
Five Ways to Win Without Chris Paul
- Run the offense through Blake Griffin. As obvious as it sounds to shift focus to option 1A when the offensive leader goes out, not all players in Griffin’s position are as capable of carrying the load. Early on, the Clippers fed him on the left block off of simple post-ups and elbow pick-and-rolls, where he was able to regularly establish good position down low. From there he punished the Nets with strong, decisive drives into the lane for a few quick buckets. But what Griffin showed as a passer out of inevitable double teams he faced has to give VDN optimism going forward that the team won’t fall flat on its face if/when they find themselves without Paul. He exhibited patience and vision, finding the open man on the opposite elbow on multiple occasions, leading to wide open looks and driving lanes that made life much easier for his teammates. That is the mark of a true franchise player.
- Keep it simple, stupid. The actor’s principle was in effect when the Clippers were going well this afternoon. The perfect example was new Clipper, D-League callup, Courtney Fortson. His job was to get the ball up, get rid of it, and move to his spot on the floor. With proper spacing, simple mathematics tell us that good things can happen when the defense is forced to double-team a player as adept at passing as Blake Griffin. Without the best point guard in the game, the Clippers managed to dish out 26 assists, almost five more than their average this season.
- Utilize Caron Butler. For the fourth time in the past five games, Butler contributed 20 points to the Clippers’ attack. Tuff Juice exploded for 15 points in the first quarter and the way he did so was truly eye-opening. He gave hope that, without the ball-stopping, pump fake-jab step medley for which he has been known throughout his career, he may just be the weak side assassin capable of punishing opponents who dare send an extra defender at Griffin. His long 2’s (16-23 feet) are down almost two attempts a game from last year, while his 3-point attempts have nearly doubled to five a game. Thanks to smarter shot allocation and the open looks he’s getting, the result has been a career high True Shooting Percentage of 56.6%.
- Follow Reggie Evans’ lead. The Clippers entered the game 29th of 30 teams in Rebound Rate, but we know they are capable of being much better. They were 8th in the league last year and have since added the premier rebounding specialist, Reggie Evans. With guys spread out around the perimeter and room for the bigs to work, they jumped out to 32-17 lead after one quarter — before Evans had even stepped foot on the floor — thanks in large part to a 17-9 edge on the boards. When Evans did come in, he proceeded to grab four rebounds in just over a minute. One of the highlights for me was the one he pulled down and immediately shoveled to a wide open Butler cutting down the lane for a layup. He got an ovation from the crowd for his efforts. This happens almost every game now and there is no reason it can’t become a part of this team’s identity.
- Hustle. When Blake Griffin is diving into the crowd, guards are pressuring the ball, DeAndre is playing smart help defense and Evans is demoralizing the opponent by creating extra possessions, the Clippers will win games — with or without Paul.
Five ways to lose to the Nets without Chris Paul
- Force feed Blake Griffin. The Nets tried some different looks to neutralize Griffin, including fronting him at times and even going to a zone clearly designed to prevent the entry pass to him in the post. What did the Clippers do far too often? They forced the ball to him. On some occasions, he was able to corral the pass and bowl through his defenders or swing the ball to an open man, but more often the result was a missed opportunity, dribbling into a turnover, or committing an offensive foul. What they failed to realize was that when the Nets dedicated such attention to Griffin, that meant someone had to be open, only a pass or two away. Without having to even make the initial pass to him, you find yourself in an advantageous offensive situation — the opponent has done the hard part has been done for you. You saw it with about 9:00 left in the 4th quarter, Reggie Evans flashed to the high post against a zone. Randy Foye was so intent on getting the ball to Griffin in the post that he looked off Evans, who had space to drive or turn and swing it to one of two open men on the weak side. Instead, Foye forced it to Griffin, who got crowded by Shelden Williams and eventually turned it over to MarShon Brooks, who had come all the way from the other side of the court for the steal. Evans, clearly looking to illustrate my point, began jumping up and down and waving his arms. Love Reggie Evans.
- Miss free throws. The Clippers shot 19-35 (54%) from the line. That won’t do, especially when DeAndre Jordan nails two of four. Blake Griffin has regressed since last season at the line, and shooting 5-13 today just continues this disturbing trend.
- Over dribble. Without Paul and Mo Williams — their second-best creator off the dribble — the Clippers frequently found themselves with a lineup of combo guards, offensively-limited bigs and Blake Griffin. The formula for success with that group seems simple: move the ball for open shots and rely on the bigs to clean up the glass. But when the Nets began their surge, you saw Foye, Billups and Butler try to create off the dribble, often leading to turnovers or more difficult looks than they had been getting earlier from sound spacing and smart ball movement.
- Be out of position on defense. The Nets made their 4th quarter run on the strength of 14 points from Shelden Williams and 12 more from Kris Humphries. That’s 26 points from those two guys alone against a Clippers’ front line that was dominant all game, to that point. Part of it was increased effort on the offensive glass and in getting position down low, but those two also got to the line 11 times between them in the quarter, mostly as a result of Clipper bigs being out of position or jumping to block shots at the expense of playing sound defense and not fouling. I’m looking at you, Blake.
- Settle for long/contested/off-balance jumpshots. As the Nets were mounting their 4th quarter comeback, the Clippers resorted to the difficult jumpshot as their primary form of offense. They went 3-13 on jumpers in the 4th quarter — not surprising because many of them came off isolation plays by Billups and Foye. We know Billups is going to take his 3’s, but as we saw today, if the shots aren’t falling, it gives the opponent an opportunity to make a run. The quality of ball and player movement can go a long way towards creating better looks and avoiding such droughts — even without Paul there to create.