After following up a two-game losing streak with a pair of wins against San Antonio and Portland, the Clippers were able to come away with victory against the Atlanta Hawks by playing suffocating defense, primarily in the second half.
The first half of the game was slow-paced and low-scoring. While the Clippers and Hawks shot a decent field goal percentage, neither team managed to score more than 40 points. The second half, however, was an entirely different story.
The Clippers starters played relatively well in the first half, but one can't help but think they could have played better. Caron's shot was off, and both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul seemed indecisive with the ball. The Clipper bench wasn't the whirlwind of energy that we're used to seeing, scoring only 13 points in the first half, while averaging 43 points per game thus far in the young season. Ryan Hollins was called for a number of silly fouls, while Bledsoe and Crawford looked like they were waiting for the other to get the offense moving. Matt Barnes, though, was all over the place, as usual--you've got to hope that when Billups/Hill return from injury, it'll be Willie Green (who was a no show this game) taking a seat, not Barnes.
In the second half, the Clippers turned it on, albeit slowly. During the opening minutes of the 3rd quarter, the momentum of the game looked to be shifting, as the Hawks soared out to take a 5-point lead. Vinny called a time out, and the control of the game began to shift back to the home team. The Clippers ran a couple of quick plays in a row, showing good floor spacing and ball movement, resulting in two back-to-back, wide-open jumpers. The crowd began to get into the game, and the defense was ignited. Once the bench was brought in, they went to work defensively, creating turnovers (22 for the game for the Hawks, up from their season average of 13.5) and forcing the Hawks into taking bad shots (41.7% shooting for the game, 38.8% for the second half). The Clippers cleaned up things on the offensive end, committing fewer turnovers than their season average (15 for the game, only 6 in the second half)--it should be noted that the Clippers, this year, are 3rd in the league at forcing turnovers, trailing only New York and Atlanta. It's clear that the Clippers' offense is fueled by their defense, with the convenient bailout of having playmakers like Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford to create offense, until the defense can get going.
The Hawks chose to play from the inside out, going early and often to Josh Smith and Al Horford in the post. Normally, the Hawks aren't much of a back-to-the-basket team, as Milph pointed out, but with Smith playing the SF position and Horford playing the PF position, they've got a size advantage on Caron and Blake respectively. To make matters worse, whenever the Clippers double-teamed the post, Lou Williams was given 3-point opportunities, where he made 3 of 4 in the first half. In the second half, the Clippers made adjustments, and we saw very little from these three players for the remainder of the game, each shooting 33%. Josh Smith, in particular, struggled as he committed 4 turnovers and 4 fouls in the second half.
Free throws? Yup. The Clippers only shot 8 free throws for the game, but they made all 8 of those free throws. Blake is shooting more than 10% better than his FT% last season, looking to finally be comfortable with his new shooting stroke, and DJ has now made 7 straight free throws after missing his first 8 of the season. Another player whose free throw shooting has improved, but hasn't been mentioned at all, is Eric Bledsoe's, who went from shooting 64% last year to 80% this year. With these three young athletes, it's all about confidence, and they seem to be gaining it quickly at the charity stripe.
The return of Blake from the right block. Early on in the season, while Blake's supposedly favorite position was the right block, he seemed to spend more time fighting for position on the left block. Well, in the second half of this game, Blake found a home on the right block, scoring on a rolling hook (signature move), up and under, and fade-away jumper. It was beautiful to see, ultimately leading to a very efficient night from Blake (16 points on 11 shots).
The Clippers are still terrible at defending the perimeter. While the Hawks ended up shooting 36%, there were just far too many wide-open looks at the three ball this afternoon. It's already been a problem, and if the long-balls had been dropping for the Hawks, the game might have been closer. The Clippers got lucky there, but they can't play defense like that and expect to win against teams like the Miami Heat.
Fouls... sorta. Fouls continue to be a problem for the Clips, who commit the 2nd highest in the league at 25 per game. We can thank Ryan Hollins (who seems to get called for everything) for this, but I think that it's a bit of a misleading stat as well. The Clippers play at a fast pace, and they are also one of the most fouled teams in the league, at 22.3 per game, and they only give up 2 more free throws per game to their opponents. Not that bad.
The Hawks were taken out of their element, which has been the Clippers' calling card during this season's wins. Sparked by aggressive defense, the Clippers were able to maintain control of the pace of the game, which resulted in a Clipper win, despite not getting a particularly exciting performance from an individual player. It was a true team performance.