However successful the Clippers offense appeared last season, it always seemed to come together through some stroke of serendipity. Shots that shouldn’t fall would somehow go in. Terrible possessions would ultimately yield a corner-three. There were always moments that made you think: “Huh, that was incredible, but shouldn’t it have been a little bit easier?”
When it comes to the offensive end, Doc’s presence should act as that last little step. He won’t be implementing some comprehensive structure to the offense. He won’t paternalistically presume to tell Chris Paul how he should go about finding the open man. He’ll just make things a little bit easier.
Whether the original source of that Boston savvy was Doc or the original Big Three, to me, is unimportant. If it’s the former, then wonderful! If it’s the latter, Doc should’ve picked up some pretty neat tricks during last five seasons.
With that being the end of my spiel, here are a few crafty Irish tricks we should all hope make an appearance next season:
Television analysts are always telling the audience to watch out for the “trigger man,” or the player tasked with inbounding the ball. It’s one of those pieces of wisdom that, no matter how forcefully internalized, will never be enough to pre-empt the strategic upside of developing a play around him. The inbounder passes the ball to someone else and the attention of the defense inevitably follows the ball. Doc Rivers took advantage of the conventional wisdom by consistently using Ray Allen, his best perimeter shooter, as the trigger man.
This baseline inbounds play starts with little fanfare, but progresses seamlessly. James Posey, Rajon Rondo, and Kevin Garnett are bunched up around the free throw line. Posey moves first, clearing out to the weakside three point line after receiving a screen from Rondo. With his momentum, Rondo uses a down screen from Garnett to make his way to the top of the key where he waits, wide open. The staggered starts, with their momentum from the screen directing each player to his intended destination, are what make the play so elegant.
From there, Garnett fights his way through Gasol until he’s just under the hoop. All the while, P.J. Brown (yes folks, we’ve got James Posey and P.J. Brown sightings) stands away from the commotion on the strong side block, directly in front of the trigger man, Ray Allen. When Garnett sets the screen for Rondo, Brown steps toward the sideline and Allen dumps the ball in to him. Brown immediately gets the ball to Rondo and then the fun begins.
Allen shuffles into the bounds of play as Garnett and Brown converge on his location. Sasha Vujecic, covering Allen on the inbounds, has the unenviable task of choosing to hedge towards one side — a choice Allen can exploit by going the opposite direction — or attempting to run through a screen set by either Garnett or Brown. Admirable as it is, Sasha chooses the latter. All Ray needs to do is throw a couple body fakes to get the defender off-balance and within seconds, he’s got himself a wide-open three.
Last season, even up against the most uncoordinated and untalented of defenses, the Clippers would still struggle to find easy shots. They would usually find a way to put the ball in the hoop since the talent scales were so lopsided, but it wasn’t a conscious exploitation of air-headed team defense. Not so with Doc. He sees some air-headed team defense and eats it up like it’s a cronut after waiting in line for two hours in the humidity.
This sideline inbounds is simple — it utilizes the skill of three gifted offensive players by choreographing a movement that would place each of them in a threatening position. Kevin Garnett receives the ball at the foul-line extended, Paul Pierce (starting from the corner) can potentially get a hand off at the elbow, and Ray Allen beyond the three-point line.
Allen, once again the trigger man, gets the ball into Garnett. With Pierce and Allen both charging directly at Garnett, the defense has trouble sticking to the appropriate man, whether they’re supposed to switch or stay on their original assignment. Allen brings his man, the forever swaggy Nick Young, directly into Pierce’s path, allowing him to the corner unencumbered. There he gets the ball back from Garnett and releases.
If you rewatch and just focus on Rondo, you can see that the play is intended to operate entirely on the strong side. He just stands there with his hands on his hips.
This last out of bounds play is quite simply spectacular and requires little explanation.
What you’ve got is the primary playmaker in Pierce making a long, parabolic trip from one corner of the court to another. As he passes by Garnett at the weakside elbow, KG gives the defender a little bump then immediately flashes towards the three point line. He waits a split second to draw his own defender, Ronny Turiaf, out to him and then cuts back towards the hoop. In his path are Ray Allen and a tough Toney Douglas. Douglas is so concerned with staying near Allen that he inadvertently doubles the size of the screen Allen sets on Turiaf. Garnett b-lines towards the hoop along the weak side of the key while Allen/Douglas clog up Turiaf’s path, resulting in an uncontested alley-oop.
A primary reason I gravitated towards clips of Ray Allen is that he has the clearest parallel on the Clippers roster in J.J. Redick. The sets I’ve chosen highlight the role of a knockdown shooter with good decision-making capacity.
Last season, the Clippers were constantly missing opportunities in the mini-break — not as quick as a fastbreak and not as slow as a set half-court offense — because there wasn’t enough space for the threat of a streaking alley-oop nor was the offensive spacing coherent enough to take advantage of a defense off-balance. With Chris Paul running point, the mini-break ought be one of the Clippers greatest assets and it’s plays like this that make me believe this will indeed by the case next season.
Here you’ve got Pierce and Garnett at the head of the pack on either side of the court. Rondo is a few steps behind them while Allen trails the pack. Rondo slows as he approaches the top of the key, but Allen keeps pace, brushing shoulders with Pierce thus slowing his man, Dwyane Wade, down (if only slightly). Allen continues his run along the baseline, then takes a sharp turn when he reaches Kevin Garnett, who does what he does best and hinders Wade’s pursuit of Allen by any means necessary. By the time Wade fights through Garnett’s screen/hold, Allen’s already released his shot from beyond the arc.
This next play makes me just giddy and I solemnly wish I could find the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. But alas, disappointments abound.
You’ve got four players involved in the action: Rondo, Garnett, Allen and Brandon Bass, who’s a decoy and a screener. Garnett starts with the ball at the top of the key, while Allen is on the perimeter at the free-throw line extended. Rondo is coming out of a scrum with Bass and each of their defenders on the low block. In unison, Garnett dribbles towards Allen’s location while Allen charges towards the strong side block where Bass is waiting for him. As Garnett dribbles, Rondo makes his way towards him and he receives a hand off.
There’s about one-second of elapsed time between Allen’s arrival at the low-block and Garnett’s. During that one second, Bass bulldozes his way through the crowd in an effort to clear out to the weakside. This leads to a bit of controlled chaos during which Allen uses Garnett, who is now right next to him, to throw a nasty pick on the already down-trodden Nick Young.
Allen doesn’t even need to go all the way to the perimeter. He merely gets to the foul line extended, curls, receives the ball from Rondo and shoots in a single, fluid motion.
Here, is a twist on a classic Celtics move (Ray Allen curling off a screen for a jumper): as Allen puts his hands up as if to receive the pass from Rondo, Garnett is taking a step backwards, putting a few extra feet of space between he and his defender, Udonis Haslem. Both Haslem and Allen’s man, James Jones, are appropriately concentrated on Allen because you just don’t leave Ray Allen open. Once Garnett has the requisite space needed to get his midrange jumper off, Allen’s hands go from distraction to arm-bar as Rondo feeds the ball to Garnett. Haslem tries to fight through Allen’s screen, which he does, but not before KG gets off a clean release.
Those last set of plays (same, above video) are really, really nothing special amongst Doc’s repertoire. But they work. This conventionality may be one of the most advantageous aspects of Doc’s schemes (or “the schemes his teams have used” if you want to get all semantic). There’s a genuine simplicity to it all. His vision of the game isn’t bogged down by too many warring considerations. He knows how a basketball player is prone to react in a situation and he exploits that tendency, big or small.
When it comes to developing strategy to get a go-to player open, the Celtics/Clippers parallel would look to be Paul Pierce/Chris Paul. When I came across this weird looking, screen-to-iso play, I couldn’t stop imagining how much Paul would’ve enjoyed having this as an alternative to the high pick n’ roll in crunch time.
There’s really isn’t anything complicated here. In this case, Rondo brings the ball up the court and passes the ball to Pierce who is sealing off his man at the top of the key. Rondo proceeds to screen the on-ball defender. Pierce moves past Rondo to the elbow and, given the diversity of choices he has, the defense ultimately decides that the safest move is to concede the jumper.
In the moment, this may seem like the right decision given the possibility that the ball-handler could drive to the hoop, the initial passer could role to the hoop for an uncontested layup, or the initial passer could receive the ball and force a rotation that leads to an open three.
The mélange of options is what makes this simple play so agreeable and, frankly, what makes Doc’s system-less offense attractive. Like Vinny Del Negro, Doc has a tendency to react to the defense rather than establishing the ground rules for the offensive game plan. But at the same time, his basketball senses are so attuned and he’s so very clever, that he will more than likely provide the Clippers with a massive tactical advantage.