I thought this game was over when the Clippers took a 13 point lead late in the third quarter on an Andre Barrett three. The Timberwolves have some talent - but let's just say that come-from-behind victories have not been their trademark this season, so it seemed as if the game was over. I jumped ahead to the end on the TiVo, and was greeted with the very sad news of a three point loss. I even got to see the replay of Cat Mobley's airball that would have tied it.
But I missed everything in between. How did it happen? What could possibly be the explanation for this monumental collapse?
I finally got a chance to go back and watch the intervening 15 minutes of basketball this morning, and it turns out it wasn't really a collapse at all. It was a very good coaching decision by Randy Wittman, and a whole lot of passive and ineffective offense from the Clippers.
Since the NBA began allowing zone defenses several seasons ago, it has remained mostly a gimmick. Teams will switch into a zone for the occasional possession after a time out just to cross up their opponent, but very few remain in the zone for an extended period of time.
The Wolves went into a zone with 3 minutes left in the third quarter. The two possessions directly prior, Al Thornton had earned two free throws on an isolation against Kirk Snyder, followed by Cat Mobley doing the same against Rashad McCants. The aforementioned Barrett three pointer occurred with 2:51 left in the period, on the first possession against the zone, and resulted in the biggest lead of the game.
After a couple of Maggette free throws, the lead was once again 13, but the Wolves finished the quarter on an 8-0 run to close to within 5. It would have been a 10-0 run had an Al Jefferson tip in not been ruled offensive interference. (It was the correct call, but a lucky break for the Clippers nonetheless given that Jefferson was unchallenged for the rebound.)
Wittman stayed with the zone the rest of the game. When was the last time you saw an NBA team play zone for an entire quarter of basketball, let alone the fourth quarter? I can honestly say I have never seen it happen. But it worked perfectly, and produced exactly what the T-Wolves wanted - a slew of Clipper jump shots, the vast majority of them misses.
At the time of Barrett's basket, the Clippers were 5 for 10 on three pointers, through 33 minutes of basketball. In the final 15 minutes, they took 11 more threes, and made only two of them. So it's pretty simple really - the Wolves switched into a zone, the Clippers shot over it, and they missed. The Wolves induced one of the worst three point shooting teams in the league to take 11 of them in 15 minutes - not too mention another 5 or 6 long jumpers.
Al Thornton had 18 points on 6 for 12 shooting before the switch. He finished with 18 points, missing 4 fourth quarter jumpers. Cat Mobley had 10 points on 4 for 7 shooting before the switch. He finished with 13, making 1 three in his final 5 shots.
One of the main reasons teams usually can't stay in a zone very long is because they tend to give up a lot of offensive rebounds. Box out assignments are pretty clear in a man-to-man - significantly less so in a zone. And indeed, Chris Kaman did snare 3 offensive rebounds in those final 15 minutes - resulting in zero points, as he managed to miss and or have blocked all three of his bunnies.
The disappearance of Kaman is probably the biggest factor in this game. After opening the third quarter with back to back baskets he was 7 for 8 on the game. He missed his final 4 shots, and the only three shots he got in the fourth quarter were after those offensive rebounds. He was fouled once, and made both free throws, that possession being the only time he got the ball in the final 15 minutes within the normal offense.
Obviously the zone is designed to make it difficult for interior players to catch the ball, and to limit the effectiveness of isolations. So in that sense, it worked. But the offensive team should have some say in the matter as well. It's inexcusable that Kaman got so few fourth quarter touches. We've lamented before the almost complete lack of passers on the Clippers' roster. Against the zone, it was painfully apparent. No one could get him the ball - and when they tried, it would usually result in a turnover.
A few of you have pointed out that Mobley played the point guard for the final 8 minutes. I'll agree it's strange, but in watching the game, I don't disagree with the decision, and I certainly don't see how it hurt per se. With the Wolves in the zone, there wasn't really a need for a traditional point guard on offense. Yes, I like penetration against the zone, but I don't really see Dickau providing that (Barrett's more of an unknown, but it's hard to imagine that MDsr was going to take his chances with a 5'10" refugee from the D-League driving into the lane). Besides, the penetration was there when the Clippers wanted it. Even Quinton Ross made it to the rim and scored. Likewise Maggette got a driving bucket, and Mobley got all the way to the rim once, though he somehow missed the bunny. That's what is so maddening about their inability to shoot over the zone - they didn't have to. There were holes everywhere. The team simply passively and lazily decided to sit on the perimeter and chuck.
At any rate, when the Wolves brought in Jaric to play the point, rather than trying to guard Marko (6'7") or McCants (6'4") with Dickau, coach went with a little size at the position. It also allowed him to put ostensibly his best offensive team on the floor - Kaman, Thomas, Thornton, Maggette and Mobley. The fact that they didn't get it done has little to do with coaching.
Missed shots are not the coach's fault. The rebound that Tim Thomas should have secured down one with 30 seconds left is not the coach's fault. (That was 6'10" Tim Thomas, with inside position, allowing 6'7" Craig Smith to steal the most important rebound of the game. Nice.)
Losing for the second time to the worst team in the Western Conference hurts. Losing to the team with the worst road record in the league at home is painful. But it's not really a mystery.