After watching the Clippers’ first 40 or so games, I didn’t really expect to see any big improvements late in the season, even after acquiring a new rotation player in Nick Young. And yet here we are with less than 10 games to go in the season and the Clippers are playing (more or less) their best basketball of the season.
Specifically (as so many have noted), the defense has improved. The Clippers have jumped from around 22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency through most of the season to 17th (and 1 point per possession off the NBA average). That’s not great by any means, but it’s far easier to see this team doing legitimate damage in the postseason if it’s playing defense better than a bottom-10 caliber team. Let’s get more specific:
In the Clippers’ last 20 games (via the NBA’s statistical database deal. It’s useful), they’re the 9th ranked defense in the NBA, giving up 101.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s excellent news. But we can go deeper than just “Better at defense!”
Where are the improvements? Mostly, I think, on the perimeter. The Clippers went from being an average-to-slightly-below-average team in terms of forcing turnovers through 40 or so games to being a top-5 team in forcing opponent turnovers in the last 20 games. Kevin Arnovitz referenced the importance of ball pressure for the Clippers’ defense (I think the comments followed a game against Memphis), and he was spot on. As the playoffs have drawn closer, the team has ratcheted up their defensive focus and effort, and I think it’s especially true of guard/wing defenders (Blake deserves some credit as well, though). Case in point — the Clippers have become an average-to-above-average 3-point defense team in the last 20 or so games, from being one of the worst spot-up D teams for more than half the season. Obviously there’s more to it than “trying harder,” as the team has found itself scrambling far less after a couple of simple swing passes, and I think that’s a testament to better cohesiveness as a defensive unit.
Now, usually I would dismiss some of this as a sample size issue…and that could explain a fraction of it. But 20 games is more than enough to safely state that the Clippers are a greatly improved defensive team as compared to their horrible efforts through the first half of the season.
And, again, I think the key word there is “effort(s).” The effort and intensity we’ve seen from the team lately has been at a season-high. The team is certainly still vulnerable to surrendering coast-to-coast layups in transition, as well as being exploited in certain one-on-one match-ups, but nevertheless the effort and improvements are exciting enough to have me feeling far more hopeful about possible contention for the Western Conference title (I will probably regret saying this).