The 35-point comeback on Thursday night was one for the storybooks even if it didn’t officially count. If you were to look at it in the context of a regular game, it was tied for the second largest comeback in NBA history. Only the Utah Jazz overcoming a 36-point deficit was more of an astonishing one. Alas, the game from Thursday isn’t an official game so it doesn’t count as anything more than a novelty act. Yet, that performance was highlighted by a few great plays to get the team the win.
As we wind down the Film Room series from the preseason, we take a look back at last Thursday’s comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers and highlight key plays that helped lead the Los Angeles Clippers to the win. The team finished preseason 3-0 in the United States, with all three wins coming at the STAPLES Center. The season starts on Tuesday night, so basketball is just right around the corner. Let’s peel back the curtains and start up the projector.
Energy is a big deal in basketball. It’s hard to generate your own energy sometimes simply because either you’re just tired or you’re playing against suboptimal competition that doesn’t actually inspire you enough. We often refer to those games as “trap games” due to their come-up-and-bite-ya nature. Thursday’s game against Portland falls directly into that category. As Admiral Ackbar famously said, “it’s a trap!” And the Clippers walked right into it.
At one point during Portland’s march to a 35-point lead, the Clippers gave up a 20-0 run in the first quarter. By the time the middle of the second quarter rolled around, the team was listless and just going through the motions. Then something happened. All of the sudden, they started playing with some semblance of energy. It was as if they realized they were being bludgeoned on their home court and didn’t want the fans to remember them like this. So, they did something about it. Roll, roll, roll that footage gently onto the screen!
We get to the action late in the first half when Portland’s seen their lead already cut to 20 points. The first play we see is something the Clippers have run quite a bit this preseason and I don’t really recall if they ran this all that much during the regular season last year. It’s a simple set where J.J. Redick brings the ball upcourt and sprints into a little bounce-pass handoff with Chris Paul. From here, Redick curls off of Paul and either gets the pass or Paul has the option of going himself. What we see here, however, is Paul going with Option C.
As Redick passes off to Paul on the right wing, Blake Griffin runs up and looks as if he’s going to set a screen. Damian Lillard reads this and tries to ICE the screen-and-roll. That works in theory, but Griffin never actually makes the contact. Paul reads what Lillard does and makes a split second decision to get downhill towards the big man – Meyers Leonard – in an effort to draw defenders. When Paul realizes he has the big occupied, he pocket passes to a rolling Griffin for a layup.
This play lends itself to a few options going forward. If Redick’s defender gets hung up on the handoff, then Paul can make a simple pass on Redick’s cut for a layup. If Paul’s defender doesn’t ICE the screen, he can simply pass to Griffin at the elbow or free throw line for a wide open jumper. If the defender closes out on Griffin at any point, Griffin just has to make one simple read and pass towards the top of the arc or left wing for a wide open three. So many options on this one play and all it took was 7 seconds in total. Or, even scarier, just 4 seconds once they passed halfcourt. This is a new wrinkle the starters have added it appears.
Second play we get to is just about a minute into the second half and we get to experience the raw playmaking ability that is Blake Austin Griffin. He gets the rebound early on and pushes it up to Chris Paul, but Paul smartly waits for Griffin to get back into the fold. Yet, he does it in the smartest way possible. Paul bodies up into Griffin’s defender, which forces a switch between Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless. This allows Paul to feed the ball back to Griffin on the dead sprint. Griffin immediately goes into a spin move at the free throw line and finds a sliding J.J. Redick along the wing for a three that splashes in.
Let’s breakdown some of the astute greatness here. Paul expertly takes up Griffin’s defender to get Griffin into a more favorable matchup right away. Then, Griffin notices the matchup and attacks it with his athleticism. As Griffin is doing that, Redick moves down the three-point line to an easier shot because Redick’s defender gets too preoccupied with Griffin’s dazzling move. And, lastly, Griffin comes out of the spin and locates Redick right way and perfectly hits him with a pass to setup the three-point attempt. It’s a three man play, but it’s so fantastic.
With the Portland lead down to 15 points, we get the staple of the Clippers’ offensive attack. It’s a Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll that turns into a pick-and-pop. Chris Paul sprints into a pass handoff with Blake Griffin at the right elbow and Griffin screens Paul’s defender. As Paul starts to come around the screen, Griffin hands the ball back to Paul and Paul gets downhill off of Griffin’s right hip. This forces both defenders – both Paul and Griffin’s defenders – to react to the drive. Due to this, Paul fires a right-handed behind-the-back pass to Griffin just above the free throw line. Griffin has a wide open jumper and knocks it down.
Portland defends this play pretty well except for the part where they left Griffin all alone from one of his sweet spots. Both wing shooters and the rolling center were accounted for perfectly. The issue that Portland faced was Meyers Leonard helped a lot on Paul’s drive to the basket because Damian Lillard did little to stop it. Had Lillard done better, it’d have allowed Leonard to probably close out sooner and contest better. Instead, Paul gets a step on Lillard and Leonard reacts to that thus leaving Griffin open. The Paul-Griffin pick-and-pop play is starting to get special.
After a defensive rebound, Blake Griffin pushes the ball up the floor in a semi-transition opportunity. All five Portland defenders are back and in solid position to stop a true fast break opportunity. Lance Stephenson fills the left corner, but his defender is right with him. J.J. Redick fills the right wing, but his defender is there. Chris Paul is at the left wing, but Damian Lillard is sort of in the vicinity, as well. This leaves a slight two-man game between Griffin and DeAndre Jordan here.
As Griffin trots across midcourt, Jordan strolls into the paint and sets a little cross screen on Meyers Leonard just below the free throw line. Jordan’s man, Mason Plumlee, sticks behind Jordan in case of any potential roll to the basket. The Clippers love to lob out of this little play, so staying with Jordan isn’t a bad move. Griffin reads the space he’s given, rises and fires a mid-range jumper that hits the bottom of the net. Portland could have rotated a defender to help here, but you sort of want Griffin taking this shot if you’re a defense. While he is knocking them down, you’d rather give up this shot than a wide open Chris Paul or J.J. Redick three from a wing. Still, this is expert awareness by Griffin. It was all fluid. Every part of it. That's a huge step.
This is a two-sided play. We see a possession for each side happen and, because of that, we get a long explanation. Defensively, Griffin does a great job on this entire play. To start it off, he ball denies a right elbow pass to Noah Vonleh initially and starts to get handsy before Vonleh passes it off on a handoff. The Blazers then ball rotate to a pick-and-roll action between Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis. Connaughton hands off to Davis as Paul Pierce gets hung up on the action. This allows Davis to handoff back to Connaughton. Jordan faces up on the play, but Connaughton slip passes back to Davis and Davis rolls to the rim for a big time dunk. Except Blake Griffin rotated over perfectly and meets him at the rim for a huge rejection.
The ball rattles around the rim and falls into Griffin’s hands after the dunk. Griffin then ignites the break by pushing the ball up the floor and getting Portland all out of sorts. Paul Pierce fills the right wing, Austin Rivers fills the right corner, DeAndre Jordan fills the middle of the paint, and J.J. Redick is standing on the left wing. Griffin reads the defense and hits Pierce with a pass. Pierce reads Connaughton’s reaction and passes to Rivers in the corner before Rivers then hits him back after Connaughton rotates to stop Rivers’ potential attempt. Pierce then sinks his three and the Clippers have cut the lead to just ten points.
This entire sequence has to be appreciated from beginning to end. Griffin stays engaged defensively the entire time and rotates over perfectly to end the possession with a block. Then, he gets the board and goes up the court in one motion before making a perfect read and pass to Pierce on the wing. After receiving the pass, Pierce makes a perfect read and passes before Rivers makes a perfect read and passes back. Everything here is just done well. These are the types of plays that happen with hustle and energy.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the lead cut to seven, we get another two-way possession sequence. C.J. McCollum receives a screen from Damian Lillard – kind of – and heads towards the rim after Austin Rivers gets hung up on both Lillard and Pablo Prigioni. Josh Smith reads this and rotates over to help on the drive. McCollum throws up a wild floater attempt that goes just barely over Smith’s outstretched fingertips and the rebound bounces off into Austin Rivers’ hands and we get to a little fastbreak action.
Rivers brings the ball up the court and gets a screen from Wesley Johnson, but Rivers turns the screen down initially and throws a post entry pass to Josh Smith on the right block. Rivers then cuts through two defenders after Johnson delivers the screen and Smith hits him wide open at the rim for a layup that cuts the lead down to just five. This was great rotational help defense by Smith, a great read by Rivers, a good screen by Johnson, a great cut by Rivers, and a great pass by Smith. Perhaps the bench is finally learning how to play with one another.
After a defensive rebound, Josh Smith pushes the ball up the court and the Clippers do a good job of filling all of the right gaps to occupy a defense. Pablo Prigioni runs into the right corner, Austin Rivers jogs to the right wing, Paul Pierce stops at the left wing, and Wesley Johnson heads directly to the left corner. The issue for Portland is that no one stops the ball – i.e. Josh Smith – whatsoever. They allow him to dribble unimpeded up the court and it occupies four defenders. Smith reads the defense and hits Johnson in the corner for a toe-on-the-line two that cuts the lead to three.
This is the added benefit of having someone like Smith man the center position at times for the Clippers. It allows him to get out in the open court and be a ball-handler, which in turn forces the opposition to have to pay extra attention to him and thus leaves more players open. Credit to Josh Smith for facilitating and making the proper read. Credit, also, to Wesley Johnson for knowing where to be. Johnson has fit in quite nicely this preseason.
Later on, with the Portland lead at three and just four minutes remaining, we get another semi-transition opportunity for the bench that leads to good things. Austin Rivers gets the defensive rebound and starts the break opportunity before pulling up at the left wing and passing to Josh Smith. The pair immediately go into a handoff that gives the ball back to Rivers. Smith screens C.J. McCollum twice and it frees Rivers up for a three from the left wing that is poured in, and the game is tied.
Portland plays this like most teams probably will. They played the pick-and-roll and the handoff as casually as could be simply because you want Rivers taking that shot based on his past performances. Instead, it comes back to bite them since it left Rivers so open that he felt compelled to take it. The two-man game between Smith and Rivers has been one that keeps popping up offensively from time to time. Perhaps these two have some form of chemistry together already. That bodes well going forward. Not just for them, but for the entire bench.
This is one of those plays that isn’t exactly executed flawlessly as much as it is just fun to watch the process and the result. Pablo Prigioni receives a sort of double-high screen from both Paul Pierce and Josh Smith. Pierce hangs back at the top of the arc, which keeps Meyers Leonard occupied. Smith rolls to the rim and that draws Allen Crabbe off of the right corner shooter (Wesley Johnson). Prigioni recognizes this and throws a skip pass over the top of the defense to Johnson. Before Crabbe can fully recover and contest, Johnson lets loose a three-point attempt and the Clippers now have the lead thanks to it.
Wesley Johnson taking a semi-contested three isn’t something you want to live with, but the entire bench was feeling it at this point so this was pretty much a heat check for the entire group. They ran the double-high screen game that Paul usually runs with Griffin and Jordan, and they did it quite well. Smith’s roll is convincing enough to draw the help defender off the weakside shooter and Prigioni’s skip pass is good enough to hit Johnson for the shot. The result makes this play come full circle, but the process behind it was great, as well. Bench unit played great in the second half of this game.
The icing play of this game for the Clippers bench came with about 90 seconds to go. Austin Rivers dribbles into a handoff with Pablo Prigioni and the team runs a cross screen in the paint for Paul Pierce. The screen setter here is Josh Smith. He sets one screen for Prigioni and then sets the screen at the free throw line to free Pierce up. Pierce reads the screen and steps back to the top of the arc. Prigioni comes off the Smith screen hard enough to force the defense to get out of sorts and Pablo hits Pierce at the top of the arc for a wide open game-clinching three.
A few of the things here are pretty great and stick out like a sore thumb. First, because of his run in the fourth quarter, Wesley Johnson is stuck to like glue by Allen Crabbe in the right corner. This leaves a help defender unable to come off of his man as Prigioni comes off the Smith screen. Due to Rivers’ ability in this quarter, Damian Lillard can’t leave him open from the weakside corner and that means a help defender can’t rotate up to stop Pierce’s cut to the top of the arc. Also, the potential Smith roll eats up two defenders here before Smith sets the screen on Leonard that frees Pierce up. Everything the bench did this quarter led to this one play. It was beautiful.
Falling behind by 35 points is the goal of zero teams in the NBA. No one wants to have to deal with that shame and that ridicule. The Clippers, apparently, got fed up with being outplayed in the first half and decided to do something about it. From midway through the second quarter to all the way through the end of the game, the Clippers played with a rejuvenated sense of self-worth. They had confidence. Preseason or not, the bench of last season was not capable of this kind of effort and comeback. That’s a huge feather in the cap of this team.
The season starts on Tuesday night, but the Clippers begin theirs on Wednesday up north against the Sacramento Kings. You’re not going to get this kind of outburst every single night, but getting this kind of effort and production some of the nights is going to be necessary to survive the brutal Western Conference landscape. Maybe, just maybe, there is a ray of sunshine with this bench and with the starters after seeing what they were capable of despite such long odds. It was just a preseason game, but what was shown could mean a whole lot more in the coming months.