Sooner or later the Clippers were going to get burned. It’s not that they’ve been playing poorly as a team, it’s just that their way of winning games felt a little unsustainable. To use our most recent popular term here (move over, glue guy!), the Clippers offensive performances without Chris Paul have been a little bit of “fool’s gold.”
The Clippers are a jump-shooting team. That’s their identity right now. According to HoopData.com, the Clippers lead the league in shot attempts beyond 16-feet. It’s what this roster is built to do. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does put the team in an awkward position when the shots from the perimeter stop falling.
The shots didn’t stop falling tonight, at least not initially. Mo Williams remained virtually unstoppable for the second night in a row, going 7-for-7 from the field (again) in the first half. Williams tallied up 25 points on a series of tough jumpers and forays to the hole before Minnesota received some “help defense” in the form of an ejection at the 6:20 mark of the fourth quarter. With Williams tossed, the Clippers offense, and depth, would be tested even further. Already without Chris Paul, playmaking duties would be placed solely in the hands of Chauncey Billups.
Losing Williams ended up being the turning point in the game. His scoring was the steadying factor for the offense — something they could rely upon consistently. After Williams left, the Clippers offense turned to mush.
- In the last 6:20 of the fourth quarter, with the team nursing a four-point lead, the offense went 2-for-8 from the field and registered three turnovers.
- Billups and Griffin, somewhat predictably, were the only players to score in that timeframe.
In a vacuum, you can survive that kind of offensive output — so long as your defense steps up. As bad as the offense was without Williams, the fact remains that the Clippers were the ones with a lead. Get stops, and it doesn’t matter much what your offense does, so long as they get shots up (the Woody Allen offense) and don’t turn it over. The Clippers won with that formula against Miami. It’s the right formula. Something has to be consistent. Usually that will be Chris Paul — he’ll be the rock for this team. But without him, the Clippers desperately needed it to be their defense once Williams left the game.
Through three quarters, the defense was pretty decent. Ricky Rubio was held without a field goal, and Kevin Love had about 10 points. Darko Milicic (!) had 22 points on the night, which should never, ever happen, especially since DeAndre Jordan had been doing such a good job sitting on his opponent’s strong hand this season. Maybe Jordan didn’t know Darko was left-handed? Maybe he thought, for some asinine reason, that the double was coming from a certain way? Regardless, the Clippers were playing well enough defensively to win, even if they looked soft in the middle.
But then, all hell sort of broke loose in the game’s final minute.
1:00, 4th Q: With a four-point lead, Blake Griffin steps up to the line to shoot two. He’s had a good night at the line up to this point (7-for-9), so Milicic’s mauling of Griffin doesn’t look terribly smart. However, despite his good night, Griffin misses both of his freebies. The second miss is terribly short, and serves as a reminder that Griffin’s free-throw form is still broken. It’s everything a free-throw shouldn’t be. It’s not smooth. It’s not one motion. Griffin bends his knees initially, but then locks them way before he releases the ball. It’s all upper body, and once fatigue sets in, that will lead to short misses.
:51, 4th Q: Even with Griffin’s missed free-throws, it’s still a two-possession game. The Wolves enter the ball off the timeout to Kevin Love at the elbow extended, and run an off-ball double-screen on the opposite side for Luke Ridnour, who is sitting in the corner. Ryan Gomes recognizes the play quickly, and switches men with Chauncey Billups to thwart the Wolves shot at getting an open 3. So far, so good.
The Wolves enter their secondary action, as Rubio curls up to the wing to receive the hand-off from Love at the elbow. As Rubio looks to turn the corner, Love sets a nice big screen (he’s still one of the best in the game at this, despite the weight loss) and takes out a trailing Randy Foye. Although he correctly fights under the screen, Foye is off-balance at this point and overplays Rubio to his right hand. Rubio recognizes it and goes to one of his pet moves — the spin back to his left hand. As he slithers through the area created by the screen, Rubio gets to the rim, but is wisely fouled by DeAndre Jordan to prevent the easy two. Rubio hits one of two, and makes it a one possession game.
:49, 4th Q: The Clippers go to their bread-and-butter, as they should, on their ensuing offensive possession. They’re in a tough spot. They need to run clock, but getting a score and pushing the lead back to two possessions is even more important.
As Blake Griffin comes to set the high ball-screen for Billups at the top of the three-point line, Rubio avoids the screen altogether and chooses instead to trail Billups. Although Billups is a threat to draw a foul with a man on his hip, he temporarily aborts his drive to rub Rubio off Griffin, who has reset above the foul line. They catch Rubio on this one, and Kevin Love is forced to come over and completely leave Griffin to halt Chauncey’s penetration. Chauncey wheels and fires to Griffin at the top of the key, who is momentarily alone. Ryan Gomes’ man, Wayne Ellington, rotates out on to Griffin, but only jabs at him. Griffin swings the ball to Gomes, now wide open in the corner, and Gomes catches the ball with Ellington in a full blown closeout. Gomes puts the ball and the floor and fires up an open mid-range jumper from about 20-feet that misses and bounces long.
It’s a good shot off good basketball plays by both Billups and Griffin. You live with it, mainly because that’s the type of look you’ve been living with this entire season.
:27, 4th Q: The Wolves race the ball back up the floor, down 98-95. Ridnour runs a quick pick-and-roll on the left elbow with Love, and Billups gets completely wiped out by the screen. Jordan, perhaps weary of allowing Love to hit the 3 on the pop, ignores Ridnour and lets him drive unimpeded to the hole. Gomes, in the corner guarding Ellington, does the same.
Now it gets ugly. A two doesn’t hurt you here. There is less than 24 seconds on the clock, so Minnesota would still have to foul. You make your two free throws (Billups and Foye are both around 90 percent from the line) and you’re right back where you were before the layup — just with less time on the clock.
But for whatever reason, Griffin decides that now is the time he wants to contest a shot at the rim. As everyone else stays home, Griffin abandons Derrick Williams at the 3-point line. For Ridnour, the decision is easy. He kicks the ball to Griffin’s man, Williams, who has spotted up and is wide open. Randy Foye rotates from the corner on to Williams — the right thing to do at this point. By this time, Chauncey Billups theoretically should have had enough time to recover. But on the final rotation, the Clippers defense breaks down. Billups is seen jogging, and as Williams swings it to a wide-open Rubio in the corner, he doesn’t closeout or even get a hand up. You don’t need Mark Jackson to tell you what happened. Rubio nails the corner 3, his first make of the night, and now it’s a tie ballgame.
:20, 4th Q: The stage is set for another Chauncey Billups redemption. Tie game, 20 seconds left. The Clippers should at least get the last shot. They don’t. As Billups idles from about 35-feet away, Griffin comes to set the high screen at about the 8 second mark, but it’s a fake. The Clippers have just vacated the right side of the floor, save for Gomes, who is spotting up in the right corner. Billups doesn’t do anything fancy in isolation — he just puts his head down and goes right, hoping to use his body to separate from Rubio or draw the foul. Rubio, to his credit, plays it pretty well. He avoids the contact initially but challenges the ball up top with his long arms. The driving layup is a little too hard, and Kevin Love collects the defensive rebound easily and calls timeout.
The only problem with this play? Billups went too early. The refs put 1.5 seconds back on the clock — more than enough time for a catch and shoot.
:1.5 seconds, 4th Q: De ja vu all over again. Rick Adelman draws up a great sideline out-of-bounds play here, and the young Wolves run it to perfection. The play started with a staggered stack at the free-throw line. The back man in the stack, Derrick Williams, curled off the screens towards the inbounder, and Blake Griffin trailed him.
By design, the curl was (mostly) a decoy. As Williams curled, all eyes were on him. DeAndre Jordan actually turned his head for a split-second to see if he needed to drop back from the free throw line and protect the rim.
That was all the time and distraction Kevin Love needed. As Ricky Rubio and Wayne Ellington pinched together and pass blocked like two All-Pro linemen, Love slipped out of the stack and popped to the three-point line. Knowing that they’d never be called for it in a million years, Rubio and Ellington cling on to Jordan and the other Clippers as they desperately try to get out to Love, but it’s too late. Love has a clean release, and the shot falls through. Bingo. Minnesota wins.
As easy at it would be to blame Jordan for not popping out with Love, it’s not that simple. Defense is never a one-person job — just ask Tyson Chandler in New York. There were many breakdowns that led to this play. Everyone is at fault.
- Blake Griffin didn’t play close enough to Derrick Williams at the outset of the play. You could actually see every member of the coaching staff begging their players to get closer to their men before the whistle blows and the ball is inbounded. Williams being temporarily open on his curl sets everything up. If Griffin closes that gap initially, the distraction isn’t as effective.
- Chauncey Billups fails horribly at his job of defending the inbound passer. Instead of tracing the ball with his hands, he acts like the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. It’s a terrible defensive effort for the second possession in a row. Nevermind the turnovers or quick shots offensively — defense is where Billups hurt the Clippers the most in the fourth quarter.
- Randy Foye forgets the most basic principle of defense: Man and Ball. Foye never even looks at Ridnour the whole time he’s inbounding, so he literally has no idea what’s going on in the play. Even if Jordan yelled switch (not sure if he did), Foye would have no idea where to go because he was staring longingly into Ricky Rubio’s puppy dog eyes. I realize he just hit you for a 3, but don’t you think, in a stack out-of-bounds play, that there might be some screening going on? Shouldn’t you at least know where the ball is?
- Gomes is equally lost, and never even makes a move towards Love. There’s 1.5 seconds left. That’s enough for a shot — not a pass, and not a putback. Just a shot. Gomes gets caught dancing between going to the rim, boxing out, and closing out, and in effect, ends up doing nothing.
This was a crazy game in a crazy season. Darko Milicic scored 22 points tonight — crazy. Is it the end of the world that the Clippers have had a few defensive breakdowns down the stretch in consecutive games? No. As it stands now, Chris Paul’s play is what defines this team. He is the identity. It’s hard to properly assess a coach, or a team, without him.
You can’t rest on your laurels, but remember, they beat the Heat and the Lakers. If Paul comes back healthy and collapses like this keep happening again and again? Then maybe it’s time to pull the fire alarm. But it’s not that time now.