LOS ANGELES — At the end of the preseason, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was asked to assess his team’s progress since the start of training camp.
“We’re behind offensively,” Rivers said. “Defensively we’re ahead of schedule and that’s unusual. Usually it’s the exact opposite.”
After Monday night’s 137-118 over the Rockets, Rivers quickly changed his tune.
“I was delusional, clearly,” Rivers said, chuckling. “It was [like that] at the time. It really flipped, honestly.”
Through four games, the Clippers lead the league in offensive efficiency by a fairly wide margin (116.6 points per 100 possessions), while simultaneously ranking dead last in defensive efficiency (110.1 points per 100 possessions). There’s certainly been progress on both ends of the floor, but the amount of defensive lapses — especially from the second unit — has been startling.
By defeating the Rockets, the Clippers have now beaten two of their presumed challengers for Western Conference supremacy. The issue, of course, is that they gave up 115 or more points and better than 50 percent shooting in each game. Still, Rivers likes what he’s seeing defensively in the infant stages of the season.
“I think our defense is pretty good,” Rivers said. “It’s what [is getting] our leads, [but] then we break down.”
Believe it or not, the Clippers actually started off Monday night’s game playing solid defense. At the point that Jamal Crawford checked in for Jared Dudley at the 3:12 mark of the first quarter, the Clippers had a 29-16 lead and held the Rockets to just 43.4 percent shooting along with four turnovers. Yet once the bench started to enter the game, the wheels fell off.
“I thought early on we were scoring and getting stops, scoring and getting stops, and then right now it seems like when we get that lead, we kind of break down in our focus,” Rivers said. “We have to be a better defensive team than we are, and we have to continue to play the offense.”
Playing “the offense” is what won the Clippers the game. Chris Paul (23 points, 17 assists) dictated the pace, dissected the Rocket’s porous perimeter defense and forced Jeremy Lin (and his ankleS) into foul trouble throughout game. Jamal Crawford (21 points, 6-of-11 on 3s) and Jared Dudley (15 points, 3-of-6 on 3s) were unconscious from deep. Blake Griffin had his usual under-the-radar 18 points. Even Byron Mullens chipped in with 12 points, his best overall game as a Clipper so far.
One player in particular stood out, though.
J.J. Redick, as has become the trend, had another monster first quarter, going for 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He embarrassed James Harden by curling off baseline screens (floppy action!) and either shooting immediately or pulling up off one or two dribbles, causing Rockets coach Kevin McHale to eventually switch Chandler Parsons onto Redick. Harden’s new man, Jared Dudley, proceeded to hit two uncontested treys after the switch, and that was just the first quarter.
Harden’s defense was so bad that he was benched for the entire fourth quarter despite the Rockets still having a shot at winning the game. It was a rough night for Harden (6-of-16 shooting, 0-of-7 on 3s), to say the least. But the player who undoubtedly had the roughest night was the one who had the building’s eyes fixated on him all night — Dwight Howard.
Monday’s game was billed as Howard’s return to Los Angeles, but it was anti-climatic in that sense. Howard struggled from the opening tip, posting just 13 points and 9 rebounds in 26 forgettable minutes.
He botched a wide-open dunk, had a couple unforced traveling violations and battled foul trouble. More surprisingly, he was booed through the pre-game introductions, which was a story unto itself. Clipper fans should, in theory, be happy and cheerful that Howard left, as it put their crosstown rivals in a futile state moving forward.
“I thought it would have been clever if we had cheered,” Rivers said.
With Howard rendered ineffective and unable to lash out with a transcendent performance against the city that clearly dislikes him, viewers had to settle for the next best thing: an offensive shootout that featured a combined 255 points (!) in regulation.
Ultimately, last night wasn’t about Howard or his return — it was about two “contenders” looking to establish an identity and incorporate new, significant additions on the fly. As the two most efficient offenses in the league (the Rockets are averaging a tidy 109.0 points per 100 possessions), there’s little doubt these two have the horsepower to score. But what’s clear, at least so far, is that both have a ways to go defensively.
The Clippers are still in the process of figuring out their rotation, determining which lineup combinations work and establishing consistency on the defensive end. As Rivers has said all along, his defensive scheme isn’t easy to learn. It takes time. Most likely, it’ll take at least half the season for the team to fully grasp.
So for the time being, the Clippers will have to rely on a potent offensive attack that’s left two supposed contenders perplexed defensively.
“I think if we continue to stay in our spacing and run our continuity, we should be able to score [a lot] every night,” Rivers said. “I know our defense is going to come. You can see it in spurts.”
- The swarm of reporters last night was insane. At least 30 people crowded McHale for his pre-game talk outside the locker room, then another 15 or so trickled into the locker room to speak with Howard. There were a few national reporters and, not surprisingly, Lakers beat writers. I can only imagine what it’ll look like when Howard returns to face the team he actually spurned over the summer.
- One fan in attendance crossed out the “H” with red tape on his Howard Lakers jersey and replaced it with a “C.”
- Chris Paul has been the MVP of the season so far, plain and simple. 26.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 13.3 assists and 3.3 steals on 51.7 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent shooting on 3s is just a ridiculous stat line. He somehow has a 37.8 PER currently, and I think it’s safe to say Alvin Gentry’s presence has given Paul more spacing and room to operate than he’s ever had before.
- After the Sacramento game, D.J. and I determined on CBL that we felt the Rockets could be, in theory, the worst matchup for the Clippers come playoff time. They have two legit superstars that can takeover a game (only the Spurs and Thunder can boast the same), are dominant on the glass, and feature a unique inside-outside presence that could light up the Clippers’ poor 3-point defense. We only saw some of that last night because Harden and Howard dealt with foul trouble/issues, but there were just enough glimpses of how the Rockets can scorch the Clippers — Harden’s drives in transition, Howard’s ability to establish deep low-post positioning, Parsons’ baseline drives, Greg Smith’s cuts and offensive rebounding against the backup bigs — to create even more anticipation for Saturday’s rematch in Houston.
- The Clippers’ bench quartet of Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Darren Collison and Byron Mullens has been destroyed so far. They’re scoring just 92.5 points per 100 possessions, while allowing 111.1 points per 100 possessions, for a net rating of -18.6. Oof. Delving even deeper, the Crawford-Collison pairing is giving up 109.1 points per 100 possessions (which is actually better than the Clippers’ rate overall) in 51 minutes, but failing to score with any consistency (97.8 points per 100 possessions). It’s early, of course, but this is something to keep an eye on moving forward.
- On the Rockets’ front, the Howard-Omer Asik pairing just isn’t working. The duo is allowing 100.1 points per 100 possessions defensively (not a terrible number by any means), but scoring an anemic 87.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s the reason why, despite starting together in all four games, McHale has only played the pair 47 minutes together. Inserting Francisco Garcia or Omri Casspi for Asik makes a lot of sense, and gives Houston their most potent small-ball lineup currently.
- Rivers on the Clippers’ offensive performance: “It was one of those games. We were making everything. They were in foul trouble. For us tonight, a lot of things went right.”
- Rivers on his timeouts: “If I call a timeout it’s usually over defense. It’s rarely over offense.”
- Rivers on Redick: “He was great. We wanted to get him started early off all the screens because he was going to guard a guy [Harden] that was going to iso him all night. It’s one of those cases where my thought was his offense could create his defense. When you have guys running and chasing, it’s hard to then go on the iso game on the other end.”
- Rivers on the Clippers’ losing focus defensively compared with practice: “Well that’s where we have to grow. I mentioned it the other day. We do the drills right and we sustain it in practice, probably because I have the whistle. If somebody messes up, I blow the whistle. Well, the refs have the whistle in the game and I can’t blow the whistle. But we’re going to get it.”
- Rivers singled out Jamal Crawford (!) as the player he’s been most impressed with effort-wise defensively. He said Crawford tries to be in the right spots and has been, for the most part. Read into that what you will.
- Rivers on his choice to single cover Howard tonight: “The more you single cover, the better your defense becomes. It may not be good tonight, but in the long run, the better you can single cover from that position, it allows our guys to stay home, it takes away cutters, it’s so important not to do that. Though, we work on traps every day in practice because we may have to do that. Right now, we just refuse to do it.”
- Defensively, Rivers has been upset with the Clippers’ transition defense (many of which are caused by live ball turnovers, he says). Also, the guards are chasing their own misses or just hanging around instead of getting back on defense.
- What makes the upcoming road trip so difficult? “The teams we’re playing,” Rivers said.
- Can the Clippers just outscore teams this season? “Not in the long run,” Rivers said.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.