Here’s the recap from the loss in Atlanta from Michael Shagrin. Enjoy.
Zach Harper of ESPN has coined an incredibly useful acronym that summarily captures the Atlanta Hawks: N.T.T.H.—Never Trust the Hawks. Against the team whose reputation is summed up by unreliability, the Clippers demonstrated those very same erratic traits. Tonight’s performance — a completely disorganized defensive showing paired with a limited offensive capacity outside of the primary playmakers — could also double as a stereotype of the Hawks. Some takeaways:
The loss against the Hawks eliminated the possibility of the Clippers catching the Lakers and hijacking the third-seed in the Western Conference. The magic number for home court advantage remains at 1. Either a Memphis loss to Orlando sans Dwight Howard or a Clippers victory on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden guarantees the Clippers home court in the first round.
While many believe the Knicks will run a tank job in order to drop to the 8th seed in the East and thus avoid a first round matchup with Heat, there are no guarantees when a prideful, professional basketball player steps onto the hardwood. The Clippers need to show up tomorrow night to avoid the potential for a Game 7 in Memphis.
The Clippers didn’t have an answer for the spot-up and isolation heavy Hawks offense. Something I never considered, but it seemed to be on display tonight, was that the Clippers roster is not made up of quality, individual defenders (that list should be limited to Chris Paul, Kenyon Martin, and maybe Nick Young if you like advanced stats). The Clippers have been able to improve defensively over the course of the season due to team defense. Some credit could go to Vinny Del Negro and Dean Demopolous, but much of the change also needs to be attributed to mid-season additions to the rotation and a general increase in familiarity amongst the roster.
The spot-ups and isos brought by the Hawks wreaked havoc on the Clippers defense because it’s prone to leaving individual defenders on an island. After the generic Clippers D failed to stop the Hawks in the second half, the Clippers switched to the zone and had the same initial result as they did against the Thunder at Staples: no defensive rebounding. The Clippers have enough trouble as it is getting defensive rebounds (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan rely on jumping higher than opponents to grab boards as opposed to the conventional and reliable box out), and without a man-to-man matchup, the Hawks’ frontcourt had uninhibited paths to offensive rebounds.
Blake Griffin had a stellar night offensively with probably his best quarter as a Clipper in the first frame, putting up 36 points total on 74% shooting (17-23 FGs) on the night. Chris Paul also had a standout night with a well-balanced 34 points (10-11 FTs and 4-6 3PTs). There is not a single other positive comment to make about the Clippers offense. While Griffin and Paul combined for an impressive 70 points, the rest of the team scored 29. Nobody else even made it to double digits.
This was the quintessential demonstration of the Clippers’ “third scorer” issue. Unlike the other true title contenders in the West, the Clippers lack a three-headed beast (think Durant-Westbrook-Harden, Kobe-Gasol-Bynum, Parker-Ginobli-Duncan, Gay-Randolph-Gasol) and instead rely nightly on a role player undertaking the duties of a superstar. Whether it is Butler, Williams, Young, or Foye, the Clippers need to have a big night from one of its (nominal) spot-up shooters. If this entire category of Clipper (yes, it is deserving of its own category on the roster) fails to perform during the playoffs, the Clippers quite simply cannot win. Just to play devil’s advocate, Chris Paul may have noticed the lack of spark from his role players and took it upon himself to ensure the Clippers stayed threatening from the perimeter. He made four of six from long range, more than the grand total of three long-range buckets from the rest of the team.
Vinny Del Negro + Al Horford= Love
Side note before discussing Vinny Del Negro’s management of the game: Atlanta was without Al Horford as they have been most of the season, but the Hawks were also missing his replacement at center, Zaza Pachulia. If the Clippers have issues taking advantage of the mismatch created by Jason Collins, God help us.
The Clippers looked good in the first half, an optimal prescription for lulling the Clippers into a complacent second half. When Vinny has to make adjustments during halftime, it doesn’t always turn out awfully. When he believes his team is playing well and decides not to use halftime to adjust based on his counterpart’s anticipated adjustments, the game plan starts to lose any semblance of its former coherence. On the offensive end, the Clippers weren’t getting open looks for any of the “third scorers”—a phenomenon that didn’t subside as the game progressed. On the defensive end, Vinny went with the zone while the Hawks sported a lineup consisting of four outside shooters. Even the Black Zone wasn’t designed to defend four perimeter shooters, and it showed.
One last comment on Del Negro’s coaching. Last year, the Clippers were beating the Hawks in Atlanta by one with only a few seconds left. The Hawks had a sideout and inbounded to Al Horford between the wing and the free-throw line. After faking a handoff at the three-point line and watching the entire defense bite, Horford drove a wide open lane to the basket and won the game for the Hawks. Since that disheartening loss, Vinny has drawn up that very play for Blake Griffin a number of times. He even used it tonight with 20 seconds left in the fourth and the game out of reach. Here is where I ask Coach Del Negro to come up with some original plays to whip out during the Playoffs.
The Clippers control their destiny in the regular season finale tomorrow night in New York at 8:00 EST.