How bad are the Clippers down the stretch?
Al Thornton ties the game at 86-86 with a couple of free throws at the 3:31 mark of the fourth quarter. On the next Sixers possession, they go into Thaddeus Young on the right block against Al Thornton. Both Thornton and Young are natural 3s, but both play out of position tonight at the 4 — which makes sense since each team is missing its starting power forward. What’s interesting is that rather than function as “3-plusses,” both guys morph themselves into power forwards by playing down in the post much of the night, and do so effectively. Young finishes the night a torrid 10-14 from the field, but here he misses the left-handed hook.
Philadelphia calls a timeout at the 2:58 mark with the score still tied. Coming out of the huddle, the Sixers score on each of their next four possessions, while the Clippers fail to convert on any of theirs:
- Clippers Possession One [2:58]: How bad has it gotten for Baron Davis? Forget the fact that he hasn’t topped 50% from the field in any single game this year. He hasn’t been above 33% in any of his last seven games. Here, the Clippers have only :09 to shoot. The ball goes up top to Baron against Andre Iguodala, one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball. Baron takes a couple of dribbles, then launches a long jumper one step inside the arc with Iguodala in his face. Clank.
- Phila Possession One [2:46]: The Sixers feed Young again, this time on the left block. Young has grown so much since his year at Georgia Tech, where he was strictly an athletic talent and spent precious little time with his back to the basket. 18 months later, he’s a player with refined post moves. Here, he floats a left-handed hook over his right shoulder against Thornton. Beautiful.
- Clippers Possession Two [2:30]: Strange set. Baron leaves the ball up top for Gordon to handle, then darts to the weak side block to give Fred Jones — who is in the weak side corner — a baseline screen. Jones doesn’t move. Gordon, meanwhile, feeds Thornton, who is posting up Young well off the left block. Gordon drifts back up top, and tries to rub Iguodala — his man — against Camby to free himself up on the perimeter. He does, and Thornton wisely kicks it back to Gordon. EJ is really learning how to move off the ball, and it’s a pleasure to watch. He’s been able to work himself more open shots at good spots on the court. Gordon catches the ball, drives against a recovering Iguodala, but Ratliff — another smart defensive player — drops off Camby to pick up Gordon. Ratliff is a brick wall, and Gordon smartly kicks the ball back out to Thornton on the arc. There’s still :10 seconds on the clock, so credit the Clippers for moving decisively into their offense, sorry as it is. Thad Young bites on Thornton’s ball fake. Al drives left but…dribbles the ball off his foot out of bounds.
- Phila Possession Two [2:12]: Is Theo Ratliff still useful? Yes. Here he sets a solid back screen that hangs up Fred Jones, freeing up Lou Williams at 17 for a wide open J. Camby has to pick up the switch the instant it’s apparent that Williams got the daylight he needed on the screen. It’s odd that Camby doesn’t, because he loves nothing more than a shot block opportunity on a close-out. Here, it was a case of slow reaction. Sixers by four inside of 2:00. Timeout Clippers.
- Clippers Possession Three [1:56]: Gordon again with the ball, as Baron gives Thornton a strong back screen at the elbow, allowing Al to move to the strong side block. Rather than feed Al, Gordon hits Baron who rolls off that screen up top. All of this takes only three seconds, so we’ve got Baron with the ball up top working with a high screen from Marcus Camby. The Sixers switch, which means Ratliff drops and is waiting between Baron and the hole. Not to overpraise Ratliff, but in his prime, he was one of the best big man defenders on the S/R, and he’s still effective. Baron kicks it out left to an open Freddie Jones beyond the arc. Young closes, and blocks Jones’ shot. We go the other way.
- Phila Possession Three [1:46]: The Sixers smell transition. Ratliff makes a good outlet pass to Andre Miller at halfcourt. Miller sees that Young has gotten well ahead of the Clippers poor transition defense. He lobs a perfect alley-oop pass to Young, who slams it home. Four seconds in all. Philadelphia by six.
- Clippers Possession Four [1:42]: The Clippers move quickly to Gordon in the right corner against Iguodala. Gordon uses the baseline. Though he gets a step on Iguodala, EJ is met in the paint by both Williams and Ratliff. Strong as EJ is, this isn’t going to end well. It doesn’t. Williams knocks the ball out of Gordon’s hands. EJ picks it up in traffic. He tries again, and fails again to draw rim. The ball dribbles out to Jones, who picks it up. His errant pass caroms off Young and scoots out of bounds with only :01 on the shot clock. Off the futile inbounds, Jones finds Davis, who tries to tip the ball from 20 feet into the hole, which is all he can do. It nicks the rim, and the Clippers somehow get it back. Unfortunately, after the Clips reset, Baron tries to hit a diving Camby in traffic, but Ratliff is too big. The Sixers backup center deflects the ball, and we go the other way. Lousy decision by Baron.
- Phila Possession Four [1:07]: Miller clearly wants to slow it down, but when he sees Iguodala slip underneath Thornton, he hits him with a lob at the rim. All Al can do is foul. Iguodala hits both FTAs. Sixers by eight inside of a minute.
The problems are obvious: With Randolph and Kaman out, the Clippers have no post presence. Without an inside game, there’s very little a team can do in a halfcourt set. Thornton has ceased to be a perimeter threat, and with all the injuries, the Clips seem to have an offensive cipher on the floor at all times, whether it’s Jones, Collins, Hart, Skinner, or — sorry to say — Paul Davis 85% of the time. This team, with this perimeter personnel, will not win basketball games until one of their two low-post threats returns.
Al has one of his more productive nights of the season: 24 points on 9-17 from the field, 6-8 from the line, 9 boards, 4 blocks [!], and only a couple of turns. He’s less frenetic, which allows him to make much better decisions off the dribble. There are a couple of instances when there’s a natural pass-out with an open guy on the perimeter behind him — and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Al will never see those opportunities as opportunities, because it’s just not in his DNA as a player — but all in all he’s an effective slasher tonight.
I know it’s relatively early in the guy’s career, so it’s somewhat unfair to lay a wholesale characterization on him, but we might have to accept the possibility that Al Thornton is going to be one of those wildly inconsistent players, the kind of player who will follow a week-long spiral of horrible play with one of his best games of the season.
My sense is that Al’s reaction on that technical at [4th, 0:14] is motivated by more than just being upset over the non-call; he’s clearly frustrated at being denied the opportunity to finish what he started tonight.
Jason Hart is making only two out of every seven shot attempts. He’s been to the line only 18 times all year and, in short, is killing the Clippers when he’s on the floor.
EJ continues to attack the rim, which is earning him trips to the line, where he’s an 81% shooter. This is good news. If he had anyone who could shoot the ball on a kickout, EJ might even be racking up some measurable assist totals.