“What happened to the good ole days when point guards guarded point guards,” Chris Paul asked rhetorically during the first quarter. The man who has become the heart and soul of the Clippers success seemed to know early on that tonight’s matchup was not going to look like “the good ole days.” Exhibit A: Chris Paul had twice as many turnovers (4) as field goals (2).
Here’s how you really know you’re in not Kansas anymore: in spite of their savior’s uncharacteristically lamentable performance, the Clippers managed to force overtime against the defending Western Conference champs after trailing the entire second half. But the craziest part of it all–the team defense was astoundingly poor and the “hot hand” offense demonstrated its acute vulnerabilities.
From the beginning, the game seemed a bit off. With Caron Butler scratched from the lineup, Matt Barnes, a key member of the energetic bench unit, got the call. Barnes was arguably the Clippers MVP on both sides of the floor (19 pts, 9 rebs, 4 steals) but his inclusion with the starters created more questions than answers. The issue when a starter gets injured, shouldn’t be “who replaces him”, but instead “who replaces his replacement?” This question was not resolved in tonight’s game. Vinny del Negro, who once bore the reputation as notoriously inflexible with his rotation, has jumped to the opposite extreme this season with a freewheeling rotational “system” that rewards the hot-hand with minutes.
When asked during his first quarter interview whether he would continue to utilize the three guard lineup as he did in the first frame, he said he probably would if Thunder coach Scott Brooks were to slide Kevin Durant up to power forward. The second quarter opened with Eric Bledsoe, Willie Green and Jamal Crawford in the Clippers backcourt with Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins as the bigs. The Thunder sported a traditional lineup, with Kevin Durant at small forward. After three minutes of Durant slicing up either Crawford or Green, Del Negro decided to go back to Barnes. The dissonance between Del Negro’s well-received words and ill-received actions was pretty astonishing.
It’s not as if the Clippers don’t have the depth to account for Butler’s absence. However, when the offense is premised on the hot hand, there’s no systematic reasoning for how the team offense ought substantively function. Personnel changes, then, will be more dramatic than expected (the midseason activations of Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill may not end up the embarrassment of riches Clippers fans are dreaming about.) These offensive issues for the Clips were compounded by Brooks’ smart defensive scheme, which called for heavy doubles in the midrange and strong collapsing of the lane. Without having to worry about a bonafide three-point threat, the Thunder were more than happy allowing Chris Paul to pass up attempts around the basket in favor of the perimeter dwelling Barnes, Crawford and, to a large degree, Blake Griffin.
The Clippers bench, usually a vital relative advantage against opponents, really had no demonstrable impact on the game. Bledsoe performed well, but he wasn’t the mini-Lebron we had seen over the passed few games. Crawford had one of his grossly voluminous games that we all (wrongly) expected to be a nightly routine (scoring 20 points on 18 shots). Barnes was with the starters and Ryan Hollins was, well, Ryan Hollins. That leaves Lamar Odom.
I’ve been experiencing severe pangs of guilt whenever I see Lamar walk onto the floor all flabby and sad looking. If you recall (I hope you don’t), I advocated quite strongly this summer for acquiring Odom. I assumed without the slightest interrogation that Lamar’s return to Los Angeles was all he needed to shake out of his slump. I was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, Lamar has been steadily trending downwards through the first eleven games. He started the season energetic, particularly on the defensive end where his size, speed, and IQ allowed him to wreak havoc via double team. When his offensive game continued to flounder, Odom seemed to lose whatever confidence was left in the reserve. He stopped driving to the lane (which he did fairly often, albeit unsuccessfully during the season opener). He stopped putting himself in a position to impact the ball. He seems to have stopped caring. I say this because in tonight’s game, with Butler missing, Odom had a longer leash and still failed to contribute anything positive.
Many of the problems exposed In Monday night’s win against the Spurs were also on display tonight against the Thunder (besides the rims being much more forgiving in Oklahoma than Texas). In both games, the Clippers defensive rotations were slow and lacked coherence. The result was OKC shooting 48% on 23 shots from behind the arc. While this issue might be inherent to the Clippers cast, Vinny del Negro either made no adjustments or ineffectual ones. The rotational problems didn’t stop at the perimeter’s edge. During the fourth quarter, the Thunder ran the same set three out of four times, each time yielding the exact same wide-open baseline jumper for Serge Ibaka.
One more consideration for Coach Del Negro: this season, the most successful means of impeding Chris Paul has been putting a wing/defensive-stopper on him. Paul himself seems to have grown annoyed by this phenomenon as indicated by his reaction to Thabo Sefolosha’s defense tonight. Against Miami, Spoelstra put Lebron on Paul and Popovich threw Kawhi Leonard on him in the Clippers first meeting with the Spurs as well as in last season’s playoffs. When San Antonio fell to the Clips at home, however, Leonard was conspicuously absent and Chris Paul had one of his transcendent fourth quarters. Since the Clippers lack offensively dynamic wings, Del Negro should expect to see this defensive choice replicated throughout the season. He would be remiss not to come up with an answer.