The Clippers are about a month and a half away from the NBA playoffs, and after a year of lamenting their loss to the Spurs, the narrative remains the same. One of the prime reasons the Clippers couldn’t manage to pull out just one victory in the second round was because they struggled to score in the slowed down environment that the post-season seemingly induces on teams. This time around, the concern remains the same. “Can the Clippers hope to make a deep playoff run without a myriad of transition baskets? What can they do to consistently score in a half court setting? What is scoring? Who is ‘clipper’?”
Before taking a shot at these questions, there’s one thing I’d like to make clear. I’m not a supporter of the premise that transition offense completely stops once the playoffs begin. There are obvious factors that come into play, such as heightened effort on the defensive end — which is often enough to stop a fast break play — and a more concerted effort to avoid turnovers. That doesn’t change the simple fact that if one team is faster than the other, it’s likely that they’ll take a noticeable edge in scoring fast break baskets. Nevertheless, the adage does hold some truth to it, so it’s important that the Clippers are prepared to execute an effective half court offense come May.
According to NBA.com, the Clippers lead the league in the percentage of points they get off of turnovers at 19.8 percent and they’re sixth in fast break points at 15.7%. According to Synergy Sports, the Clippers are 11th in transition attempts. Needless to say, pushing the ball is a dominating trait of Lob City.
Fortunately, the statistics bode well for notorious non-transition categories as well. In spot-up opportunities, which constitute 19.4% of their attempts, the Clippers’ 1.03 points per possession (ppp) ranks them fifth in the league. In isolation, the Clippers rank eighth in the league (0.85 ppp). They have Chris Paul to thank for a great deal of that, considering he’s ranked 15th in the league in isolation at 0.96 points per possession. LA is fifth in the league in points produced by the pick-and-roll ball-handler and eighth in points produced by the pick and roll roll-man. In that same light, Paul is 16th among all players in the league as a pick and roll ball-handler.
Taking a look at these numbers may provide some insight, but not nearly enough. That’s why I decided to keep track of every half court set that the Clippers ran against the Indiana Pacers with both Griffin and Paul on the floor, since that’s the duo that will be anchoring the teams playoff hopes. The bench, meanwhile, will have its minutes severely reduced and something gives me a feeling that the Bledsoe-led crew won’t have too much of a hard time getting out on the break.
Why Indiana? Well, they are the league’s best ranked defense. If there’s anything close to defensive playoff intensity in the regular season, it’s playing against the Pacers at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Here’s what I saw:
LA’s first quarter execution was more than appreciable. In 19 halfcourt possessions, they managed to put the ball in the basket a total of nine times. This was despite the fact that the Clippers missed seven of their eight three-point attempts, six of which were relatively uncontested.
As more and more teams make the decision to hedge on the pick and roll, movement preceding the pick and roll in order to get the defense off its feet has become the norm. Or at least it should, in my eyes. With the Clippers nearly always sporting a lineup featuring two ball handlers, Del Negro has done a good job of implementing this. Here, Billups takes the ball up as Odom and Griffin set up a double screen in a modified horns set, with Paul lingering above the corner three area. This sets up a side pick and roll between CP3 and Blake, with Mahinmi too far out of position to hedge. Paul’s penetration leads to a wide open three for Butler.
He misses the shot, but Butler generally shoots 56.4 percent from the right corner (per NBA.com), so that’s a shot that should generally produce a ppp of 1.69. Moving on, when Griffin posts up with his back to the basket, his ppp ranks in the lower 350th players in the league. What that doesn’t account for though, is the fact that post up opportunities generally put him in great position for offensive rebounds, as displayed here:
We all know how savvy Jamal Crawford can be on the offensive end. Here, he curls off a screen set by Ronny Turiaf and gets an extra step on Paul George. For Crawford, that extra step is often enough to wreak havoc.
In total, the Clippers went 9-for-18 in their first quarter half court sets, despite going just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc. Of those 3-point attempts, just one was contested, signifying more of a rough shooting night than a lapse in execution. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that they turned it over just twice.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the ugly in the following twelve minutes. In the second quarter, the Clippers — remember, with Paul and Griffin on the floor — went 3-for-8 from the field and missed all three of their 3-point attempts.
Here’s a play that the Clippers ran a few times against the Pacers. Chris Paul posts up, and Blake Griffin sets a screen for him. Due to the proximity to the basket, and Griffin’s affinity to be… well, absolutely destructive in that area, the Pacers are forced to switch. This creates a mismatch in the post with George Hill stuck on Griffin and another mismatch on the perimeter with the slower Mahinmi on an island against Paul. Hesitation, pull-up, splash. It’s like clockwork.
The third quarter provided a plethora of good and bad sets combined. All in all, the Clippers went 9-for-15 from the field, 2-for-4 from behind the arc and added four free throws. We’ll start with the bad stuff first:
Initially, Griffin’s lane to the rim gets cut off thanks to a good rotation from David West. This does, however, put him in good position for a post-up. That’s good, right? … Right? As you can see here, the Clippers’ spacing is terrible. There is very little movement going on, aside from Lamar Odom creeping around the painted area, which really does nothing except make it easier for West to help off of him. Griffin manages to get it to Billups, who misses a contested three. Luckily, Butler crashes the boards and gives the Clippers a second chance.
Ah… once again, the importance of movement before the actual movement. Billups gets the ball to Griffin in the post, who then hands it off to Chris Paul. This puts them in perfect position to run a pick and roll, as Mahinmi is already out of position to hedge. As Griffin rolls to the rim, he sets a pseudo-screen for Billups right before he makes his move to the 3-point line. This little adjustment may have only provided an extra half-second for Billups to get his shot up, but that’s often the difference between a make or a miss in the NBA. Anyways, back to the bad stuff:
The problem here is that after setting a pick for Billups, Odom doesn’t make a pronounced decision. He hangs around at the free throw area, where Billups doesn’t have a passing lane to get him the ball. Say he pops a little further, that’s a wide open shot. Better yet, if he rolls, it probably ends in a layup or put-back for Blake. Speaking of Blake Griffin… there was also this:
“BOOOOOM! OH MY GOODNESS!” That was fun. To begin, Turiaf and Billups run a pick and roll 30 feet away from the basket. For starters, I can’t understand why Stephenson didn’t go under, but he didn’t, for whatever reason. Anyway, Turiaf dives to the rim — this is important, since it forces Mahinmi to pay attention to him — and Billups hands the ball to Griffin. Paul and Griffin get into another pick and roll set on the other side of the rim, West is again out of position to hedge and you know the rest. Oh hey, look… another screen from 30 feet out!
Why? Why not just set a screen that’s say… 24 feet from the basket? Anyway, Chris Paul gets blocked and Turiaf is so far behind that he’s not even close to being in position to contest for an offensive rebound. By the way, here’s a breakdown of a crunchtime “play,” if you can call it that.
Well for starters, there’s little action before Paul and Blake run a pick and roll… and surprise, surprise! It doesn’t work out too well. Anyway, Stephenson makes a great defensive play by almost stealing the ball from Odom once he turns away, but with just three seconds left on the clock, it was a lost possession for the Clippers regardless.
The first CP3/Blake pick and roll doesn’t amount to much, so they run it again. With Hill trailing him, Paul has ample time to get off a step-back fadeaway jumper against Hansbrough. Side note: It’s good to have Chris Paul on your side at the end of games.
In total, the Clippers went 24-for-44 from the field, and 3-for-16 from beyond the arc in halfcourt sets including both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Of course, this should be taken with a bit of a grain of salt, since Hibbert was out. However, Indiana still sports one of the most disruptive defensive systems in the league. The Clippers did alright for themselves, especially considering the amount of open threes they missed.
Here’s the thing with the Clippers offense. Sometimes, it’s great. It looks like a lot of what we saw above. Other times, everyone decides they want to stop moving. That’s something that happened against the Thunder. The key to LA mastering its halfcourt offense isn’t implementing new sets. Rather, it’s consistently executing the things they already know how to do.
There are two things working in the Clippers favor here. First of all, an offense that rests its foundation on CP3/Griffin pick and rolls has the proper tools for success. Second of all, the secondary ballhandler that the Clippers seemingly always have on the floor maximizes the pick and roll’s probability for success. With the majority of defenses being locked and loaded to offset even the most potent of pick and roll combinations, the secondary ball-handler has taken on an even more important role.
Luckily, Vinny Del Negro seems to understand this — on some nights, at least.