Going into this game the Clippers boasted an undefeated 2-0 record, but no one was inspired by their lackadaisical play on the offensive and defensive game. The Clippers faced a tough test from the Kings, who seem to be a much better team than what their record of past years seem to have reflected. The Clippers shot 37.5% from the field for the game and a chilling 29% from three, going only 2-16 in the second half with many crucial misses at the end of the game. It was their shooting in the first half that kept them in the game, and what ultimately let them down in the end.
From the first quarter the Kings made their game plan clear, they were going to direct all of their offense through DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, their two Team USA members. Cousins was unstoppable throughout the whole game finishing with 34 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks. For all of the recognition that Blake has gotten the past couple of years, Boogie has a remarkably similar skill set being able to post, reliably hit an outside jumper, as well as handle the ball and pass; plus, Cousins has the size that Blake will never achieve. Cousins hit the first 5 field goals for the Kings and set the tone for the rest of the game. At the end of the first quarter Gay took over and scored seemingly at will against Matt Barnes, finishing the night with 25 points on 50% shooting. Until the Clippers make a trade, Barnes goes to Germany for Kobe's magical surgery, or CDR goes all Rocket Power, I expect opponent wings to kill us all season.
One thing that must be noted in the middle of the first quarter was Ben McLemore's flagrant foul on a Griffin breakaway, causing a violent tumble. Griffin was immediately flustered and seem to be ready to brawl with McLemore as he got up. Blake proceeded to miss his flagrant foul free throws short and continued to miss jumpers for the rest of the quarter and half short. I wonder if the fall affected Griffin and his form at all, or the fact the Clippers have played 3 games in the past 4 days. Either way Griffin's shot was off all game as he finished with only 17 points, going a putrid 6-20 from the field. Griffin also seemed to be taken out of the game from the lack of calls from the officials, an aspect of his game that was supposed to be alleviated by Doc's arrival.
With Jamal out for this game, there was some concern over the offensive capabilities of the Clippers' second unit. Jordan Farmar, Spencer Hawes, and Hedo Turkoglu all stepped up big for the Clippers, playing a coherent offensive system that kept the Clippers in the game. With Farmar poised and under control, the Clippers lit up the Kings from behind the arc in the second quarter. Hawes finished the game 17 points and Farmar with 10 points. It seemed odd that with all of the Kings improved defensive system under Malone, they were especially horrible at covering the three point line. Often all of the Kings would collapse into the paint at any sign of penetration, and there was a consistent lack of effort, and by that I mean none at all, in closing out shooters. This helps when the Clippers make shots, and at least in the first half they did. The Hawes/Farmar/Hedo trio had 21 points in the first half, and the Clippers ended up ahead 51-45 at the midpoint, which almost seemed improbable. The Kings were shooting 51.5% from the field and the Clippers only 34%. But the Clippers were 7-15 from three, and the Kings only 1-3, meaning an 18 point advantage from deep; the Clippers also had 8 less turnovers than the Kings in the first half.
To start the second half the Clippers went straight to Chris Paul in the post trying to exploit his mismatch against either McLemore or Darren Collison. The Clippers ran the same set 5 times in a row and converted almost each time with the Kings unable to stop anything. Paul came up big in the third scoring 12 points in the quarter after having an injury scare in the first half when Rudy Gay stepped on his ankle. For once the Clippers starters seemed to be functioning at an acceptable offensive level and the Clippers continued to exploit mismatches; the Kings adjusted their defense to double Paul and Griffin on the catch. Cousins remained absolutely a beast making some completely ridiculous shots, seemingly on fire throughout the whole game. Gay also continued to attack the Clippers weak point keeping the Kings close down 70 - 74 at the end of the third.
In the last period the second units matched up against one another, except Cousins was playing with the Kings bench because he had been subbed early as a result of foul trouble. Hawes proved to be little help in stopping Boogie and the Kings took the lead in the beginning of the fourth. Doc brought the starters back in hoping that they would help to close out the game like they had the past two contests. The Clippers kept it close against the Kings, trading the lead back and forth for most of the fourth quarter with the Kings constantly ahead be no more than 4 points.
With six minutes to play, DJ got a breakaway lob from Chris Paul and it seemed to energize the Clippers' defense down the stretch. With three minutes to play the Clippers got all the stops you could really ask of them, preventing the Kings from scoring 5 of 7 times, outside of free throws. It was the first time that we have seen the Clippers ratchet up their defensive intensity to meet their opponent, and it was nice to see that they can still bring it when needed. DJ was especially impressive going 1 on 1 with Cousins down the stretch. DJ played solid 1 on 1 defense on Cousins, blocking him multiple times, Cousins just happens to be an incredibly gifted offensive player. When your center can play out of the paint above the free throw arc and consistently hit a 17 footer from there, but also have the handles to drive past you if you close out, it makes you almost unguardable; in the same way Griffin is a challenge to defend, so is Cousins. Looking back to the Lakers game, Doc seems to rather have a center shoot from mid range than constantly pull DJ out of the paint to contest and guard them.
The problem the Clippers experienced is that only playing good defense is not enough; you need to be able to also make shots when you're behind. The Clippers had multiple wide open looks from three for Barnes, Redick, and Hawes down the stretch, but the Clippers just couldn't convert, shooting only 2-16 from three in the second half. Ultimately in a make or miss league, if you can't make shots at the end of the game, you're going to lose, and that's what happened tonight. It also doesn't help that Cousins and Gay couldn't be stopped the entire game and your MVP candidate shoots 30%.
A couple of thoughts overall about the Clippers offense and defense tonight. The Clippers defensive rotations off of the ball I thought was rather good, causing a lot of havoc for the Kings resulting in multiple turnovers (the Kings also had possessions of just sloppy play). Some times you just run into great offensive players like Boogie, and Gay will exploit our biggest weakness as a scoring SF. Outside of Boogie/Gay/Collison, no other King was in double figures.
As far as the Clippers offense, one of the most glaring things to me is that they hardly ever are running high middle pick and rolls anymore, or just pick and rolls in general. One of the most devastating plays for the past three years in the league has been a Blake Griffin and Chris Paul pick and roll, but the Clippers just aren't doing it anymore. Instead they are posting different players like Blake of Paul, resulting in more isos and more of the ball sticking and ball watching. Even with J.J.'s off ball movement, it is rarely in addition to actions on the ball in pick and rolls. Maybe Doc really is going in a different direction this year without Gentry on his staff, and I'm not sure it has worked well so far. Regardless, the Clippers have been getting open looks that they are simply missing and that's the main reason they lost tonight; or maybe it was all the moustaches.