Mark's Musings: Clippers show Thunder Quite The Opening Act

Ronald Martinez

Mark Travis is covering Round 2 from Oklahoma City, where the Clippers went into Loud City and made a thunderous opening statement with their 122-105 demolition of the Thunder.

STORY OF THE GAME

The Clippers found something on Monday night that the Thunder have been hopelessly searching for over the past two years: A balance between individual brilliance and symbiotic teamwork.

Even in the midst of Chris Paul’s finest performance as a Clipper, Doc Rivers’ team never strayed from its course. Praised as a master motivator, Rivers has helped craft one of the league’s most active and efficient offenses, one that perfectly utilizes each and every player that he puts on the floor. With Paul as the conductor and Blake Griffin as his co-producer, the Clippers sliced and diced every defensive coverage that the Thunder, a team that ranked fifth in the league in defensive efficiency this season, threw at them, racking up 100 points before the end of the third quarter.

Meanwhile, the Thunder never sniffed the kind of harmony that is necessary for them to reach their peak. As was the case during their first round series against the Grizzlies, Oklahoma City was playing 2-on-5 for a lot of the night, with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking turns trying to attack the Clipper defense, which was adequately prepared to at least make life tough on OKC’s star duo, by themselves.

In the halfcourt, the Clippers defended Durant and Westbrook well, seamlessly switching between extending their defense to keep them from turning the corner on pick-and-rolls to sending them away from the screen and baiting them into pull-up two pointers. A few times Durant was able to get loose from deep in transition, but by that time the Clipper lead had already ballooned past 20. Durant and Westbrook got their points, combining for 54 on 55% shooting, but with nobody else involved, 54 was a point total that Los Angeles easily overcame.

And, to be honest, you could give Durant and Westbrook 10 more points apiece and it might not have mattered on this night. After Chris Paul’s flurry of threes in the first quarter (he was five-of-five from deep in the game’s opening frame) gave the Clipper some separation, the Thunder defense never demonstrated the ability to not give up a wide open shot every possession, much less get Los Angeles out of their comfort zone.

The Clippers showed an unbelievable commitment to moving the ball, swinging it from side-to-side and running hundreds of pick-and-rolls throughout the night, bending and breaking the Thunder defense with every skip pass to the corner and pocket pass to the roll man. Griffin played an instrumental role in obliterating Oklahoma City’s gameplan, slipping most of his picks to give Paul an outlet at the foulline. From there, there may not be a single more dangerous player in the league outside of LeBron. Griffin was able to attack the rim, find DeAndre Jordan for lobs and swing it out to wide open shooters.

Golden State’s trio of incredible defensive wings allowed them to do some wacky things in the first round like switching every single action the Clippers ran. The result was a lot of Griffin post-ups against an oddly fantastic post defender in Draymond Green and not a lot of clean spot-up looks for LA’s shooters. Though Griffin has refined his game on the block, the Clippers are at their best when his post-ups are a secondary source of offense used sparingly as a change of pace while they butter their bread with heavy doses of pick-and-roll.

And no player in the game manages high screen-and-rolls better than Chris Paul.

Watching him run this offense in person is something special. He possesses an unprecedented understanding of the intricacies of the game and sees the entire play breaking down in slow motion. Even on a team that loves to get up-and-down the floor and even as the ball pings around the floor rapidly, Paul expertly controls the cadence of the action. He knows just how long he needs to string out his dribble to displace the opposing big man from where he needs to be on the ensuing pick-and-roll on the other side of the floor and he knows just when to try and thread the needle with the pocket pass to his big man on the roll.  He sets up his teammates in ways more far advanced than just hitting them in stride for a dunk. He changes the complexion of the floor even as he probes the defense with no intent to score.

That’s how Paul usually plays it, coy and unassertive. His emphasis is always on making sure the offense finds the optimal shot on every possession, which normally means distributing rather than attacking.

But last night, Paul found a rhythm with his jumpshot that he’s never had before. After drilling a couple of side step threes in a row, Paul start confidently stepping into threes anytime the Thunder cheated off of him to guard the big man on pick-and-rolls. We’ve seen Paul get on a roll with his mid-range jumper before, but to drill eight threes in a row is obviously unreal. Yet there he was, sinking everything he looked at, causing the Thunder crowd to moan in agony every time he set his feet to launch from deep.

The guy with a bad thumb and a gimpy hamstring that had figuratively passed the team over to the ascending Blake Griffin made sure that folks didn't forget that he's the best point guard in the world, dropping 32 points on 12-of-14 shooting while dishing out 10 assists and turning it over just two times. It may just be one game, but when Paul started showering threes down on the Thunder, relentless when putting his foot on their necks, it set the tone for this series. Griffin has indeed developed into an all-world talent worthy of MVP consideration and he too was crucial in LA’s game one victory.

But this team still takes its direction from Paul, its diminutive point guard whose immense impact and burning desire to win has helped put the Clippers, as well as himself, in a great position to make it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever.

BLAKE'S BENEFICIARIES

In my series preview, I talked about how Blake Griffin could do a lot of damage in this series as a passer by 'shorting' on pick-and-rolls - essentially not setting a screen - and acting as an outlet at the foulline. Well, it didn't take long for that to come to fruition. Not even three minutes into the game the Clippers had already forced a fundamental breakdown against Oklahoma City's defense thanks to Griffin's playmaking ability.
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I could watch that for hours. Obviously, Jordan's dunk is the highlight of the play, but it's everything that comes before the jam that makes me giddy.

First of all, the Clippers are already running a corner pick-and-roll with Matt Barnes and Griffin with 22 seconds on the shot clock. This is the kind of stuff that Doc Rivers dreamed about when he was coaching those older Celtics teams. The play starts with Barnes and Griffin in the left corner, then moves onto a Paul/DeAndre Jordan side pick-and-roll on the right wing and finishes with Barnes and Griffin running another pick-and-roll at the top of the key.

Plays like this are what separates the Clippers from OKC. Los Angeles is persistent with their ball movement and everyone on the floor is involved. This is the antithesis of how the Thunder play. The ball swings from side to side and the defense is probed and forced to cover a lot of ground, which makes it easy for Griffin to induce a defensive breakdown by catching at the foulline and drawing Oklahoma City's last line of defense away from the rim.

Compare that to a standard Thunder possession, where either Westbrook or Durant pounds the ball for a few seconds, failing ever to attack both sides of the floor, making it easy for the weakside defenders to load up on them any time they drive. The result is usually a contested jumper, which is something any team will live with even if it goes in.

And note that it is Matt Barnes, the least capable playmaker of LAC's perimeter players, handling the ball on two of these pick-and-rolls. His limitations as an offensive player are negated somewhat by the intention of the action. Rather than placing an emphasis on scoring on all of their pick-and-rolls, often the Clippers run them just to get the ball and the defense on the move.

The Clippers busted out another beautiful set play in the third quarter in a sideline out of bounds situation. The play starts with a pindown for Chris Paul on the left side of the floor. On the catch, Paul flows into a high screen-and-roll with Griffin and yet again the Clippers catch the Thunder with nobody protecting the rim.
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Because the Clippers clear the entire left side of the floor after Jordan's pindown for Paul, there is no weakside defender there to recover for Perkins, who steps up to guard Blake. With J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes spacing the floor in the right corner and on the right wing, there's no help coming from the ballside, either, and the result is another pretty lob.

One may ask why Perkins continues to step up to Griffin when he could just stay attached to Jordan's body and make Griffin shoot the jumper. Well, maybe that works with Pau Gasol or David West, but we don't have to think very hard to remember what Griffin can and will do to Perkins if he's given room to gather steam headed to the basket.

The Thunder tried dropping the nearest wing defender to the foulline to deter Griffin rather than bringing up that second big, but the Clippers have shooters all over the floor, so such a strategy is going to leave someone open.
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Here Durant crashes to Griffin from the corner, which cedes another open look.
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When their shooters are on, the Clippers' high screen-and-roll is almost unguardable, due in large part to how good Griffin is at making the right decision on the catch. After the game, Doc praised Griffin for recognizing and sticking with the flow of the game when Paul started to get going. While Griffin could have easily taken the ball into the post a few times, any time he got the ball with nothing in front of him, he went and found Paul so that they could run another pick-and-roll. The Thunder have enough trouble guarding one screen-and-roll per possession, so when Griffin put the pressure on them by seeking out Paul to run it over and over again, Oklahoma City's defense started to collapse.

Bench Brilliance

Chris Paul played out of his mind and Griffin was responsible for putting a lot of things together, but the Clipper bench may have been every bit as important as LA's two stars in this game. The Clips' second unit has been a question mark for awhile, but they played extremely well in game one, and, as Doc noted in his post-game presser, their stretch to the start the second quarter, extending the lead to 19 at one point, was key.

Jamal Crawford dropped 17 points with three threes, Jared Dudley provided some good defense on Durant for a stint or two and spaced the floor, Darren Collison attacked off the pick-and-roll and made plays and, miraculously, Glen Davis held things together as a small ball center. With the floor spaced with three shooters surrounding Collison and Davis, their high screen-and-rolls produced great look after great look.

The only player that couldn't find his rhythm was Danny Granger. He got three wide open looks from the corner throughout this game but he just couldn't get it to go down. Still though, failing to contain Collison on this pick-and-roll and having to help off of the strongside corner is a fundamental no-no.

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Here Nick Collison comes down to bump Davis on the roll, but quickly darts back to Dudley on the perimeter. Darren Collison does a great job of staying patient and reading the help defenders. Once Collison retreats to Dudley, Davis is left wide open under the rim, with the only Thunder defender in the vicinity being Derek Fisher, who isn't even close to being in position to take a charge.

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You can excuse the Thunder if it is Paul and Griffin eviscerating their defense. Those guys are superstars. But when you can't contain a Collison/Davis pick-and-roll? Yeah, that's an issue.

Many thanks to Justin Russo for his help with the GIFs.

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