Thursday and Saturday’s games saw the Clippers build, lose and then regain sizable leads against the Suns and the Lakers respectively. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin led the way in both games posting impressive numbers and the Clips offense as a whole has looked strong in the three games following last Sunday’s dispiriting loss to the Kings. That said, the defense has remained bad and has been on a progressive slide downward since the halcyon days of November and December.
The bench, which surprised early on with its apparent defensive fortitude, has reverted back to reflect the collective defensive talent level of Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, Paul Pierce, Jamal Crawford and Marreese Speights. What is more worrying, however, is the poor defense the starting unit has been playing since becoming fully healthy again. Before Griffin and Paul went down, the Clippers starting unit was giving up 95.3 points per 100 possession in 447 minutes of play. Since their return, the starters have a defensive rating of 107.1, good for 22nd in the league.
After digging into the numbers, the biggest difference with the starters before and after the injuries has been their pace of play. The Clippers have been playing slower over the last couple months but are giving up more shots to opponents per 100 possessions. Teams are shooting 3.4 more threes a game at a 40 percent clip against the starting lineup since Paul’s return in late February.
Giving up a sizable amount of three pointers is a staple of most bad defenses and would likely spell doom for the Clippers sometime early on in the postseason. After combing through several recent defensive possessions I’ve found that while a lot of this slippage can be chalked up to inattentiveness, there are some underlying cracks in the Clipper’s scheme that may prove worrying down the line.
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On a string
This clip is from a December 1 game versus the Cavs when the Clipper’s starters were at the peak of their powers. In this play Blake traps Kyrie Irving following a Love pick and pop. De’Andre Jordan reacts quickly, rotating over to prevent the Love three pointer while J.J. Redick slides down to defend the potential lob to Jordan’s man in the paint. Blake then sprints back to Thompson so Redick can rotate back to J.R. Smith in time to contest a tough three pointer.
This entire sequence requires precise timing and implicit trust in one’s teammates to help the helper. Blake, Jordan and Redick all rotate off their assignment knowing the help will be there. That confidence is crucial in a league where a half second hesitation can lead to an easy bucket for the other team.
Bad defensive spacing
This play from Wednesday’s bout against the Wizards helps to illustrate where and how that trust has been lost. Following a Bradley Beal-Marcin Gortat side pick and roll, Griffin ventures too far into the paint as the help defender in order to defend the lob to Gortat as Jordan attempts to corral Beal. Otto Porter wisely cuts to the basket to take Redick away from the weak side corner where Markieff Morris is open for a three.
Plays like this are what makes defending good offensive teams like Washington so difficult but the Clippers bigs did not help matters with where they decided to place themselves in relation to each other. While Redick and Paul are positioned to collapse into the paint or dart back to their man if needed, Griffin is almost completely in the restricted area because Jordan didn’t drop back into the paint.
Similarly, in a play during Saturday’s game against the Lakers, Griffin abandons Julius Randle at the top of the key to double David Nwaba on a post up. This is doubly egregious given how well positioned Speights is to already provide help in the paint. While Randle isn’t a knock down three point shooter (29 percent), Griffin’s gamble turned a possession going nowhere for the Lakers into a wide open three pointer at the top of the key.
Griffin has freelanced on defense often since returning, helping at the wrong times off the wrong players, and these lapses have led to many big games for stretchy fours playing the Clippers.
This isn’t all on Blake Griffin, however. Paul, a stout individual defender and the captain of many good defensive units, has often been caught passively watching the play develop around him. This is symptomatic of a team just trying to get to the playoffs as quickly as possible and hopefully will be an easy fix once the Clippers decide to lock in.
However, as you can see in the second clip, Paul obviously expected Griffin to follow Morris to the corner instead of switching onto Gortat and both players ended up guarding nobody.
DAJ switching onto shooters
A common thread through all these clips is the player defending the ball handler in the pick and roll (Luc Mbah a Moute in most cases) getting beaten off the screen. In this play during last week’s game against the Suns, Jordan gets switched onto Devin Booker and immediately steps backward, giving him ample space for a three. While Luc and Paul are both plus perimeter defenders, the ball handlers the Clippers will see in the postseason make switches like this one an inevitability. Jordan has always been uncomfortable switching that far out but he has to know better than to backpedal against a shooter like Booker.
Overall, the Clipper’s starting unit is rounding back into form. While the defense has taken a step back, the offense remains blistering as the starters are scoring 118 points per 100 possessions since the all star break. This lineup is more than capable of also playing elite defense for extended stretches, it just remains to be seen if they can get on the same page again in time to show it.