Before Game 3, the Clippers had shown us three fairly definite things in these playoffs — they couldn’t contain the Grizzlies offensively, Chris Paul is still really good, and the bench (especially Reggie Evans) has been a key in regards to not losing every game by 10+ points.
Then last night, one of those things went wrong — the team won a defensive struggle. The Clippers won Game 3 while sporting an offensive rating of approximately 94. The Clippers won around 5 games all season in which they had an offensive rating of lower than 100 (give or take on this number, because I had to open the HoopData box score from every win this season manually and count them, which is a ridiculous thing for a person to do when they aren’t being paid for it).
So anyway, how did this happen? I will attempt to answer this (while avoiding existential questions about the unknowability of everything around us) on a quarter-by-quarter basis using the NBA’s statistical database deal to double-check lineup success and whatnot. It will take a long time, but I can at least feel that I will have given you, dear reader, immense detail to glean insight into what happened in the game.
The starting lineup of CP3-Foye-Caron-Blake-DeAndre hasn’t been good this series (even subtracting all of Game 1 as a crazy outlier, which I think is a bit misguided but here we are and I’ve decided to do it and if you don’t like it then look the bloody numbers up yourself, anonymous reader) the starting lineup had a net rating of something around -20. The Bobby Simmons starting lineup of Game 2 was +.2 (I’d say neutral, but let’s give Bobby Simmons as much credit as possible in his moment in the sun).
Good news though, because in the first quarter of Game 3, the starting lineup with Caron Butler back was reasonably passable (-.6, which is great compared to its overall performance in the playoffs). The offense was rough, with Blake Griffin alternating solid work in the post against Zach Randolph (and one or so possessions against Marc Gasol) with some turnovers sprinkled in. Randy Foye also hit a couple of threes both pre and post-DeAndre/Caron removal, which was nice. On the Clippers’ end defensively, Zach Randolph hit a couple of tough jumpers, but the Grizzlies had trouble getting into the lane (and this was before any major foul issues popped back up for the Clippers, as they would later in the game). Mike Conley also had some unforced errors/struggles. All in all the starting lineups were more or less a draw against one another, is the point.
Issues for LAC, however, would arise with the introduction of Quincy Pondexter, who has done well as his minutes have increased over the course of the series. Defensively he doesn’t get the hype of a Tony Allen, but he’s quite good, and he can hit an open jumper and penetrate from time to time. With the Griz bringing in Pondexter in place of Rudy Gay and leaving in Tony Allen, the squad was more or less selling out to a more defensive gameplan and going to the post offensively, where Marc Gasol showed some early aggression, drawing a double team and dishing out for long-2s when he wasn’t covered. Thank God the Grizzlies haven’t done this consistently in the series, if you’re a Clippers fan.
Moving along, the Clips (despite turnovers), were able to generally shut down the Grizzlies in transition. Mike Conley forced some things early, and the Clippers ballhawked and forced the Grizzlies into offense based around jumpers. Offensively, the Clippers looked to Blake often with mixed results early, and got a late push from Chris Paul to make the 1st quarter more or less a draw with both teams struggling against each other offensively. So I suppose you can say the starting lineups set the tone for the first, and despite starters coming in the status quo remained.
An additional observation from the first: one thing about the Grizzlies is that almost every one of their lineups is capable defensively and can exploit a mismatch offensively –usually because they’re able to post someone up and can work from their to find a solid spot-up shooter from mid-range (Speights, Pondexter chief among them on the bench). The question for them is if they can exploit those matchups effectively, which to my eyes has been an issue for the Grizzlies so far in the fourth quarter of both losses (if the Grizzlies don’t start going to Marc Gasol more often when struggling offensively, the Clippers should be very pleased). However, Game 3 was the first in which the Grizzlies did not score with great effectiveness against the Clippers’ D, overall. So whether the Griz have missed out on taking advantage of the Clippers’ defense from time to time previous to Game 3 or not, this is the first time it’s resulted in a less-than-good overall offensive rating.
Paul opened this quarter with Mo Williams, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin, and Reggie Evans against the Grizzlies’ Conley-Mayo-Pondexter-Speights-Gasol group, and Kenyon and Reggie were jumping every entry pass. That’s the best bet for the Clippers when they go without DeAndre Jordan defensively throughout this series, I think, though I might be a bit overzealous about it due to the transition and halfcourt success it enjoyed early in this quarter.
Griz head coach Lionel Hollins pretty quickly saw this lineup (which tried at different times to exploit a Mo Williams-OJ Mayo matching) wasn’t working, and put Zach Randolph back in for Gasol (who needed a breather) and Gay for Mayo. This group would also last but a single minute, unable to do anything offensively (at least when Kenyon Martin wasn’t fouling off-ball), and struggling to keep up with Chris Paul and Mo Williams’ ability to maneuver around the defense, to the tune of a +7 rating for the LAC lineup and the beginning of a 13-1 run that would give the Clippers their biggest lead of the game (13 points) about 3.5 minutes into the second.
Unfortunately, Chris Paul is not a robot and thus must occasionally rest. With 9:36 to go he checked out and Eric Bledsoe checked in. Surprisingly, I think, this lineup (EB-Mo-Young-Kenyon-Reggie) would play the second most minutes to the starters in the quarter (who would return to close the period), and was horrible defensively. I would have expected such an unbalanced group to struggle to find space offensively, but they pushed the ball a few different times, Eric Bledsoe hung around in the corner while Mo Williams created, and Reggie and Kenyon hit the boards. Defensively, though, the issue was mostly that the team had to overextend to ensure that it wasn’t bullied with screens or post-ups. This led to some nice forced turnovers, but also some open looks for 3 for the Griz and some fouls.
3 minutes of up-and-down play from this lineup was not the only issue for the Clippers in the second, however. It was the +10 (it keyed a 13-0 run) lineup that came in around 3.5 minutes into the second for the Grizzlies and couldn’t be stopped. They outplayed the all-bench lineup, which Vinny answered by bringing back in Blake for Kenyon. No dice, as Blake immediately coughed the ball up on a post-up, and Mo Williams jumped in the air to pass on a pick-and-roll and turned the ball over (you cannot jump pass against the Grizzlies). That lineup was -4 in less than a minute of play via those two turnovers and subsequent runouts. At that point, Paul and Foye were brought in for Bledsoe and Mo Williams and 30 seconds later (following a loose ball foul by Nick Young on Rudy Gay), Young was replaced by Caron Butler.
This quarter also saw the return of the ineffective starting lineup for the Clippers. They played 4 minutes (more than any other lineup) and managed to lose one point to the Grizzlies, almost purely because of ineffective offense (the defense was solid if unspectacular). Interestingly, the lineup that played about a minute before being replaced by the all-starters group would prove to be the first lineup the Clippers could stick with for more than a minute in the second quarter and come out with a +1 rating. Credit to Blake Griffin for containing Marc Gasol in some pick-and-roll situations and Reggie Evans for wrestling Zach Randolph down in the post as the Grizzlies had little advantage isolating Rudy Gay on Caron nor hitting Pondexter in space for jumpers (credit Foye for contesting). Despite the fact that this lineup was competing nicely, Vinny Del Negro replaced Reggie with DeAndre Jordan, thus reuniting the starters in the previously described also near-neutral lineup. As important as Reggie Evans has been, DeAndre Jordan (bad-looking PER aside) is still an effective defender. Sometimes you just have to stick it out with your starters against the opposing starters, whether there’s a significant advantage to be found there or not (in this case, there wasn’t much of an advantage for either team).
The most key part of the second outside of the big Grizzlies mid-quarter run was the wild +4/-4 final 2 minutes, with Mayo-Allen-Pondexter-Randolph-Speights outplaying the Clippers starters over the course of 1.5 minutes, and then the late exchange that Blake capped with a steal and buzzer beating dunk. Considering the 1-point outcome of the game, that dunk was a pretty big deal (granted, so were all of the missed free throws etc. etc.).
The starting lineup’s struggles intrigued me until I saw how poorly Caron Butler has played offensively. It could be, simply, that Caron is no longer conducive to spacing the floor compared to the 3-guard (Nick Young at SF/Randy Foye at SF) lineups. With that broken hand, I certainly have to wonder if the Caron at SF starting lineup will ever stop functioning as a handicap to the Clippers’ efforts at winning. I’d be interested to see Bobby Simmons (who was effective in Game 2, though obviously it isn’t wise to count on that night in and night out) possibly take some of Caron’s minutes if he remains ineffective.
Two final points: Chris Paul, even when the Grizzlies take away all options, is great. Virtually every Clippers lineup without him struggles on offense, surprise surprise. DeAndre Jordan, as good as Kenyon Martin’s energy and defensive work have been, can and should still key for the Clippers stopping penetration and rebounding well. When he went out in the first, even Tony Allen was getting layups when handling the ball in the pick-and-roll. This would be an issue too when Rudy Gay began isolating and running the pick-and-roll later in the game. Eventually DeAndre would enter to replace Reggie and the relative give-and-take would continue, but overall Reggie Evans has been the more effective option at center for the Clippers, which is really weird to be able to say. I give a lot of credit to Reggie, but if DeAndre Jordan could be a bit more sure-handed following rebounds and a bit less jittery throwing outlets, that would be lovely.
Second half analysis coming up in a few hours, in which the mid-second quarter Clippers decide to take over the full third quarter, while the early second quarter Clippers win the game in the fourth quarter (that was confusing, but you’ll figure it out).