Recapping the Action
While watching the Clippers take on the Jazz tonight, the word that kept popping into my head to describe the play was "funky". Maybe it's in keeping with the Grammy road trip musical theme, or because funk music takes its origins partly in jazz, but without a doubt that was the funkiest game of the season.
To begin with, J.J. Redick was a late scratch from the starting lineup because of back spasms. Hopefully he won't be sidelined too long. While I anticipated Jamal Crawford could be inserted into the starting lineup because of injury, I expected it would be for Barnes instead of J.J. The absence of Redick forced Doc to scramble his rotations, meaning that there were substitutions at funky times and lineups that haven't logged many minutes together, if any.
Secondly, the Clippers seemed to play as if they were in a funk for most of the game. They seemed tired, with the altitude possibly affecting them, and were playing sloppy and without much effort. Through three quarters they had played just well enough — or the Jazz had played just poorly enough — to keep the game close. When it counted most in the 4th quarter, the Clippers flipped their switch and pulled out an ugly win.
In the first quarter, the Clippers came out with their offensive machine executing, scoring 10 quick points thanks to some long balls by Crawford. It looked like the Clippers were going to carve up the Jazz defense, with Chris Paul seemingly getting wherever he wanted on the court. However, the Clipper offense seemed to stall a little, and their defense was unable to contain the Jazz.
The Clippers started to show the early signs of what would plague them through three quarters: lazy rotations and hedging on pick and rolls, a lack of communication on switches leading to unneeded mismatches, and just general defensive malaise (I'll touch more on the Clippers' defensive issues below). The Clippers traded buckets with the Jazz, and Blake looked effective in the post against whoever was guarding him. Austin Rivers even added some offensive production, finishing two drives to keep the game close, leaving the Clippers down 24-26 after one frame.
The bench began the 2nd quarter with a beautiful offensive possession — swinging the ball around the perimeter unselfishly, leading to an Austin Rivers three. This seemed to be the only good offensive possession the bench would generate, as they quickly devolved into the ball sticking in one person's hands, until it found Jamal for a bailout shot as the clock expired. No matter how pressed to score the bench is, I never want to see isolations clear-outs for Big Baby or Hedo; at one point Big Baby stood with the ball and yelled for Jamal to come get it because he didn't know what to do.
Nevertheless, the bench held their own with the Jazz until the starters came back with 7:30 to go. As the defense failed to stop the Jazz, and the Clippers looked like they were playing with cement shoes, a couple of timely CP3 buckets and breakaway DJ slam threatened to spark the team, but no real rhythm ever emerged. Going into the half, the Clippers were down 50-49.
At the beginning of the second half, it seemed like Doc was just waiting for his players to wake up. The first player to come to life was Paul, coming out and making timely jumpers and floaters to help keep the score close; for long stretches it seemed like he was the only Clipper aware this was an actual game and not just afternoon shootaround.
Austin Rivers once again came in and provided an instant spark off the bench — not only with his defense, but surprisingly, also with his offense, as he made shots and his penetration led to easy baskets for others. The highlight of the quarter was Paul acting out Hayward flopping by repeatedly snapping his head back like a chicken for the referees. The 3rd quarter ended with Utah up four, 72-68.
For all the comments about how terrible the bench has been all year, it was them who changed the game at the start of the 4th quarter (not unlike their last performance v. Denver). Suddenly the reserves were active and scrappy, and their defensive rotations were crisp with everyone sticking to their players, even if the Jazz continued to kill the Clippers on the offensive glass.
When the starters came back early in the final frame, they continued to play with the energy the bench created, and for the first time the Clippers started to resemble their usual selves. Barnes hit some timely corner threes, and CP3 and Blake went to work on the offensive end, grabbing a five point lead (90-85). With the Clippers moving on the defensive end, they decisively held the Jazz to shooting 6-24 in the final frame, but Utah kept it close by snaring 9 of their 19 misses for offensive rebounds. Ultimately it was two big blocks by DJ and Barnes — and terrible clock management by Burke on a crucial crunch-time possession — that helped the Clippers to seal the game for good.
A few thoughts
For three quarters tonight, the Clippers defense was horrible, mostly because they simply weren't trying or communicating with one another. Doc likes to run a pretty aggressive defensive scheme against the pick-and-roll, with the defending big man coming out high to hedge the opposing ball handler.
The scheme usually works well because of Blake and DeAndre's unique athleticism, allowing them to show and recover quickly, or in some cases trap the opposing ball-handler. Of course, this demands a lot of energy and effort on the defensive end. When players are moving at half-speed, this causes a host of problems for the defense. Often the hedging big man would pursue the ball handler for too long, and not aggressively enough to trap or contain him.
At the same time, as the opposing screener rolled into the lane, the Clippers had their weakside defender rotate over to bump him, but that defender often stayed too long, partly because the primary pick and roll defenders weren't recovering fast enough. This allowed the Jazz offense to exploit mismatches and make smart passes leading to wide open corner 3s (thankfully they missed many of those looks) or easy buckets down low as LA scrambled to chase and recover.
There was also a lack of communication on switches and doubling opponents, which led to some easy dunks, often because the Clippers couldn't stay in front of their man on the perimeter, getting blown by easily. The Clippers played good defense for one quarter (minus defensive rebounding), and luckily that was enough tonight.
Austin Rivers gets my game ball tonight. Even though CP3 had a great game and Jamal provided so much needed scoring with J.J. out, Rivers was the unexpected game changer. Doc Jr. made timely shots, leading to his Clipper season-high 12 points, outscoring Gordon Hayward. He brought hustle and intensity with him every time he stepped on the court that helped to energize the team. It was the bench that swung the game at the start of the 4th, and tonight with Jamal starting, it seemed like Rivers was the bench leader. If he can keep playing like this, people won't be killing GM Doc for that trade (Ed. Note: Debatable).
The Clippers offense looks bad without J.J. Redick. Oftentimes, we take Redick's movement off the ball and ability to drain open shots for granted, but without him in the lineup the Clippers seemed lost on offense. There were a lot of bad offensive possessions where the ball stuck and there were really only one or maybe two actions that took place off an obvious Griffin post-up or pick-and-roll. The Clippers are entering the gauntlet — an unthinkably difficult stretch of 20+ games — and they'll need Redick back soon if they want to keep their head above water.
Joe Ingles looks like he may be an NBA player after all. He has great passing ability, leading the team with a game-high seven assists. Tonight he helped the Jazz run their offense (especially since Dante Exum was essentially nonexistent) and he even made some three pointers. Maybe it's to compensate for his slow footedness, but Ingles had a tendency to push off on his defender every time he drove, shoving Jamal to the ground at one point. Maybe he learned those dirty plays from fellow Boomer Andrew Bogut.
Finally, a win is a win is a win. This team showed some determination tonight to win a gritty, ugly game when they weren't playing their best, and that's what great teams do. The Clippers are now 32-14 and tied for 3rd in the West on a six-game win streak with a heinous stretch of games coming. BRING IT ON!