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The Randolph-Novak-Gordon Set

I had intended to include something about this in my recap of the New York game, but I didn't for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, I was particularly tired for some reason and had trouble writing coherently.  You know when you're reading while dozing off, and you finish a sentence and realize that you have no idea what it said?  Well, that's an even stranger sensation when you wrote the sentence.  For another thing, it has to do with breaking down a particular play, which frankly is Kevin's domain.  I figured he'd do it in his recap, and indeed he did.

But after reading his analysis (which is as always terrific), I wanted to add my two cents.

As he points out, the Clippers went to a particular set several times down the stretch, and it worked almost every time.  Kevin says this was the first game they've used it, and that rings true.  For one thing, given that Novak only started getting regular minutes and becoming an integral part of the offense during Zach Randolph's absence, the team has really only had this personnel configuration (with Randolph, Novak and Gordon) on the floor together for the last six games - none of them close in the end.  And who would have thought that Novak would be part of the 'go to' play down the stretch of a close game?

Here's Kevin's description of the basic set - like I said, breaking down the X's and O's is definitely his thing, and pretty much no one does it better:

[4th, 1:00]  The Clips set up Randolph on the right block against David Lee.  They first run Eric Gordon around Randolph, trying to rub Robinson off the Clippers’ PF.  Robinson runs underneath, but is able to recover and cut off the passing lane between Baron and Eric.  Instead, Eric sets up at the mid-post and the Clippers now have a stack…and here comes Steve Novak trying to get free above the stack.  David Lee realizes two things: [1] There’s no way his teammate, Harrington, is going to be able to stay with Novak.  [2] The only way for the Knicks to prevent Novak from getting a clean open look at a 3PA is for Lee to drop off Randolph and step out on Novak.  So the Knicks switch:  Lee picks up Novak on the right wing, and Harrington has assumed the role of guarding Randolph in the post.  It’s a very, very nice set — well-drawn, well-executed.  The Clippers wanted one of two things:  [1] An open shot on the right arc for either Gordon or Novak. [2] Randolph against Harrington.  They get the latter.  Baron feeds Randolph, who takes a left-handed dribble into the lane, and gets mauled as he flings a left-handed hook that goes through the net.  Zach should be going to the line for a FTA, but there’s no whistle.

As he goes on to say, the Clippers run the play again the next time down the floor for the tie, and use the basic set on the first possession of overtime.

What I wanted to point out is that they also ran that set for the play before, Novak's three, which cut the Knick's four point lead to one - arguably the most crucial basket, since the Clippers failed to get a stop in four straight Knicks' possession.  The only way to erase the four point lead was to get 3 for 2 - which they did courtesy of Novak's three and Al Harrington's T. 

In all, the Clippers ran that set, by my count, on five out of six possessions (the last three of regulation and two of the first three in overtime) and they scored every time (although on one it was an offensive rebound by Zach).  What's most interesting is that they scored five different ways.

Option one is the double stack screen for Gordon.  This is not a new idea by any means, and is the Clippers favorite play to run for EJ.  He can either curl on the screens if the defender is trailing him, or go out to the three point line if the defender is hung up.  Robinson is so small and so quick, he actually defends it very well almost every time - it's tough to screen the little guy, and he recovers in a flash even if you get him.  Nonetheless, Gordon is freed for an open three point basket on the third possession of overtime.  It's also the same basic set that gets him a step to the baseline (when Nate goes over the top of the screens) for his crucial and-one in the final minute of OT. 

Option two is the new wrinkle, frankly because Novak is such a unique perimeter threat.  It's often said that some of the best plays in basketball are the oldest ones - the screen-and-roll, the give-and-go - these are things that I ran in high school, and my dad ran in high school.  But a relatively new play that you see everywhere now is 'screen the screener'.  Basically, the player who sets a screen in turn gets a screen set for him.  The reason it works is because the defender has a job on the first screen - he has to be ready to switch, and even if he doesn't switch, he has to 'show', which is to help on the high side of the screen to take away the easiest path to the basket.  But because that defender is coping with those responsiblities, he tends to get out of position for what is coming next.  Novak is in the stack of screens designed to free Gordon.  If Gordon doesn't get the ball, Zach screens down on Novak's man.  On the crucial three pointer near the end of regulation, Harrington is distracted enough by the screen for Gordon, that he gets caught on the Randolph screen and trails him out to the arc.  Truth be told, Harrington does a pretty good job defending it - Novak makes an unbelievable shot running away from the basket.  Harrington is close enough to foul Novak, though there is no call.  But the play worked because Novak is so bloody good.

Option three - call it screen the screener's screener.  OK, not really.  There is no screen for Zach.  But all of the action for Gordon and Novak once again puts Randolph's defender (in this case David Lee) in a tough position.  Does he switch, does he hedge, what does he do?  And he's got that dilemma twice, in quick succession.  As Kevin points out, he switches on the penultimate play of regulation- Novak has just drained a huge three, the NY lead stands at three, this time Harrington is completely hung up - Lee has to switch, it's the absolutely correct decision.  It means that now Randolph has Harrington in the post.  Zach makes a very tough shot and was definitely fouled on the play, though once again there was no call.

The final possession of regulatoin yields the easiest basket for the Clippers so far.  Lee is simply caught out of position hedging to Novak.  Randolph gets a deep catch and has a gimme at the rim.  Truthfully, although the play yields 12 points in 5 trips, this is the only time that the Knicks defend it poorly.  The other times it was really a matter of good offense trumping pretty good defense.

It's interesting to compare crunch time of this game to other Clipper games (with key personnel - no real point in comparing it to games when Zach wasn't available).  In Chicago, in a game that went into double overtime, the Clippers went to Zach probably 90% of the time at the end of regulation and in the overtime.  The go to set was more straightforward - an iso for Randolph.  The only involvement for other players was Gordon setting a cross screen designed to help Zach get good low post position.  But from there, it was an entry pass and spot up for every one else.  It can be an effective set, especially if Z-Bo is on a roll.  But it's more than a little predictable and boring.

By the way, if you happened to watch the Celtics beat the Mavericks last night, you saw the World Champion Celtics run an iso for Paul Pierce almost exclusively in the fourth quarter.  The 'set' was no more complicated than Pierce setting a screen for Rondo.  If the Mavs swtiched it, they got the ball to Pierce and had the matchup they wanted.  If the Mavs didn't switch it, they got the ball to Pierce anyway.  It literally didn't matter.  They got the ball to Pierce at the high post EVERY DAMN TIME and it worked EVERY DAMN TIME.  My point is, the Clippers aren't the only team that runs a lot of isolations.

But with a new level of confidence in Gordon's offensive game, and the undeniable threat that is Novak on the perimeter, MDsr, whom we have criticized for running  isos almost exclusively, went to a set that literally involved the entire team, and has myriad options and variations.  You want an iso?  Go to Thornton on the weak side if the defense is hedging to the screen action.  And of course Baron has the option of driving the lane as well if his man wants to overplay the passing lane.

Mike Smith said something after EJ's crucial three point play.  He said "The Clippers may have found their go to scorer".  I think that's a stretch at this point.  Randolph will be, and should be, involved in critical possessions.  But the point is that the team has some options.  It's not just a matter of standing and watching Zach.

It may be an isolated incident - Camby and Kaman were out, the Knicks present some unique matchups, the presence of Jared Jeffires allowed Novak to be on the floor without being exploited on defense - but it was a welcome and interesting departure for the Clippers.