Dr. Oliver Eslinger is the Men’s head basketball coach at CalTech. He was on press row at Staples Center for the Clippers’ loss against Phoenix, and offers his impressions:
On Thursday night, Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro pondered one pointed question for what seemed like an eternity. His fatigue was apparent. He was drained from the loss and his team’s postgame team meeting. And his answer confirmed the team’s implosion. He essentially admitted that the Clippers’ offense sputtered in the fourth quarter, and it wasn’t necessarily a surprise. He then elaborated: “We’re playing too much as individuals instead of a team. You can’t win like that. We let one play infect another.”
The opening minutes were scripted as an indication of how the game would end; and even more dramatic, how the post game activities would endure. Phoenix looked organized, intent on its system, turning to a number of sets sequentially just as a football team does in its initial execution. It would be all too easy to point to this game as a pivotal one for both squads, if indeed the Clippers falter and the Suns rise to playoff contention.
Great teams aren’t built in a day. With looming rumors that surrounded Thursday’s trade deadline, perhaps there was an informal job deadline for coaches swirling about. Just knowing that almost one-fourth of current NBA head coaches were given their jobs somewhere in the middle of the season could impose fear on anyone, particularly someone captaining a ship that seems to be losing its way after such great expectations. After starting the season 15-6 and leading the division, the Clippers are 5-9 in their last 14 outings.
One of the many jobs of a coach is to identify adversity before it appears. It’s sports forecasting, being prepared for short-term and long-term storms. Once issues are identified, a game plan for dealing with them has to be outlined. On top of that, one may ask: Is the team strong enough to handle the tough times? How can it strengthen bonds now so that when adversity appears, issues are dealt with in an effective manner?
“You have to find ways to work through it and it’s tough,” said Del Negro. “It’s a daily grind and we haven’t handled it well lately.”
Thursday night’s game encapsulated what coaches both love and loathe: the chasm of cohesiveness. As the Suns strengthened their ties, the Clippers’ were being cut, a downfall apparent in body language, lack of touch, complaints, lackluster play, and looks of apathy.
At times, athletes act as if they don’t care simply because they don’t know how to deal with the fact that they do. It takes a great deal of mental fortitude to be aware, admit mistakes and take actions to improve. Chris Paul is made of that mental mettle. Some say he is the greatest competitor in the game, displaying more and more grit as the game goes on. With his ability to take care of the ball and hit contested shots, he may be the best closer in basketball — but he can’t do it purely by himself. He needs space and time. And he wanted the same in the locker room after the game, where he was visibly the most serious, the most concerned, wearing the loss on his face and in his pace. His team shouldn’t have lost the game; they had it won, he reiterated. He was disgusted.
The Clippers mounted a decent start, and built a lead that grew to 17 points. Second half? An ho-hum third quarter and dreadful fourth, in which they scored only 12 points, half of them coming at the free throw line when the Suns’ end-game plan was put into effect. The Clippers shot 69 percent from the free throw line but Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are at 55 and 49 percent for the season, respectively.
Attention fans: Introducing hack-a-Clip. Griffin came back from Wednesday night’s two charity stripe air balls and, gasp, regurgitated another. The fans, determined to inject some confidence and might into his next attempt, stood up and encouraged him with howls and hand motions. He missed the next, barely grazing the front of the rim.
Meanwhile, the Suns continued to play consistently. They ran their sets. All players got touches and they set an assortment of screens, the same way they started the game. Though the Suns did not necessarily shine through the first two quarters on the scoreboard, they managed the game in ways the Clippers did not. Easily observable were the orchestrated sets for various players, looking to take advantage of favorable matchups and engage the entire lineup. There were staggered screens, slice cuts, screen the screener actions, and pick-and-rolls at each end of the shot clock.
Not until Mo Williams came in the game did L.A. even attempt to reverse the ball while simultaneously settings screens. Down double-digits and looking at Nash and Hill in street clothes, one may be disillusioned to think: “This could be over already.” But it’s a long game. Del Negro knows this. Despite a double-digit lead, he realized it was something that could not necessarily be sustained: “From start to finish, I didn’t think our energy was very good. We had opportunities to take control of the game, but we didn’t.”
The command game of basketball can capsize in an instant. Comfort turns to complacency. Fun turns to flatness. Case in point, the Clippers never got into a rhythm. It’s a difficult job to keep a team together, hungry and unselfish, especially after losses when quality practice time does not exist. It makes one wonder what else can be done? When does a coach get creative and structure some sort of team bonding experience? Del Negro admitted the team was outworked, that it’s not the first time the Clippers have lost to teams who were missing key guys. He agreed the offense was predictable (Paul with the ball, trying to make something happen off a Griffin pick) and disorganized (everyone else watching Paul with the ball, trying to make something happen off a Griffin pick). There appeared to be both inactivity and the wrong activity simultaneously.
More than ever, however, possessions turned into Paul-watching rather than efficient maneuvering. On an assumed pick-and-roll, Griffin took no step to accomplish the latter part of the play, instead pivoting and popping. Problem was, Paul wanted him to go hard to the basket to create space for one of them to take a reliable shot. Immediately after the failed possession, Paul yelled at Griffin as they were backpedaling back to defense. “Hey Blake! Roll!” he exclaimed pointing in the direction of the rim. Soon after, another pick-and-roll attempt ended up with Paul being funneled to the left corner as he came off a sideline pick from Griffin, one where Blake again popped. No space. No points. A number of possessions after that saw limited space, zero ball movement, and players crisscrossing trying to get out of the way so someone could pave a way.
For the Clippers, it was a mess of a fourth quarter. And it was even more of a mess after the game. A delayed Del Negro press conference and an hour of waiting for the locker room to open for the media as the players were holding a “players only” meeting were rare, but defining moments of a delicate situation. Persons in the corridor were in disbelief, treading on proverbial eggshells when the door opened.
Team dynamics are fragile. Look at how quickly team cohesion can crumble only weeks after its been built. The New York Knicks were becoming the most exciting, if not the best team in the league when BOOM, they lose their coach after several games of frustration (Linless?). The night of the dismissal, they put a 42-point pounding on Portland. Result? The Trail Blazers lose their coach, someone once at the helm of a reenergized movement.
The hope is, for Del Negro’s sake and the players’ morale, that the combination of post-game teammate talk and a new face in the form of Nick Young provides enough solidarity to make a final push, one that imparts incentive for the fans and confidence in the franchise. Otherwise, the fragility of the situation will be too much for many to manage … and when that happens, one of two actions usually occurs: A sport psychologist is brought in or someone is let go.
Follow Oliver Eslinger on Twitter: @docsheadgames