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Film Room: Austin Rivers nearly led the Clippers over the Mavericks

In a game that ended up being a frustrating loss, it should be mentioned that much-maligned Austin Rivers did a whole host of good things on the basketball court. This Film Room looks back at it.

Last night in Texas, the Los Angeles Clippers suffered a tough defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. However, amidst the hard-to-swallow loss, there were some positives to take away from the team as a whole. Namely, Austin Rivers was flat out good and helped supply a much-needed spark to the team whenever he was in the game. While many people loathe him for reasons that are often unexplainable, no one can deny he’s helped the team. This Film Room will examine some of the high points from him last night.

As of this second, Austin Rivers is averaging a career-high in points per game. We are only 8 games into the season, but it does show some of the positive contributions he has made to the team thus far. He’s also posting a career-high field goal percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, True Shooting Percentage, and Steal Percentage. Lastly, he’s posting a career low turnover rate. One of the more incredible things, though, has been Rivers’ ability to drive to the rim and get there almost at will.

Rivers currently ranks third on the team in total shots attempted from inside 8 feet. That puts him squarely behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Yes, that’s right. Of all the players on this team, Austin Rivers has the third most attempts from inside 8 feet and the only two with more are two of the best finishing big men in the game today. That says a lot. On top of that, Rivers is 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) in that area. Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, combined, have only taken 28 shots from inside that area – just 4 more than Rivers has taken himself.

On top of all of that, Rivers has found his niche as an attacking defender who can supply quality defense on a nightly basis. Among all players on the team who have played at least 50 total minutes, Rivers ranks first in individual Defensive Rating (98.8). That alone doesn’t mean he’s a good defender, but his body of work on the floor makes it so. He’s turned his career around by hounding opposing ball-handlers and generally just being in the right spot at the right time. Since this Film Room will showcase what he did against Dallas, let’s get it rolling with some defensive footage.

Nothing really elaborate happens elsewhere on the court as Deron Williams dribbles the ball on the right wing. All Williams is attempting to do is get a post entry pass to Charlie Villanueva, but Jamal Crawford does a good job of fronting and denying the entry pass. Due to Blake Griffin being in front of him, Williams doesn’t risk the pass to the post and instead swings it to the free throw line area. The problem is that he makes a lazy pass and the ball just glides along the floor waiting for someone to snatch it up – that someone is Austin Rivers. As Zaza Pachulia reaches out for the ball, Rivers lunges towards it and pokes it loose then stumbles and corrals the ball before pulling it back to set up the offense.

Say what you want about him stumbling and looking foolish, but Rivers makes a heady read here and steals the ball away from the Mavericks before then doing the wise thing and holding the ball up at the other end of the floor for help to arrive. Credit to Crawford denying the entry pass and Griffin for swarming Williams, but major hat tip to Rivers for getting dirty on this play and coming up with the turnover. He stayed engaged, watched his man and the ball, and made the right play.

A possession later, Rivers is guarding J.J. Barea before Barea dribble handoffs with Devin Harris. This forces Rivers and Crawford to switch their defensive assignments. Rivers is now on Harris, and the Mavericks run Rivers immediately into a Dirk Nowitzki screen. Rivers takes a chance by going under the screen rather than over, but he also gets around the screen really well. As Harris recognizes Rivers went under the screen, Devin begins to pull up for a three. The second Harris reaches the apex of his shot, Rivers is already back around the screen and contesting the three. Ball hits back iron and the Clippers rebound.

Rivers could have went over the top of the screen here and forced Harris to move the ball more, but going under is okay here. If Rivers went over, it creates a possibility for a slip pass to Nowitzki. You’d much rather have Harris shooting a contested three than Nowitzki, that’s for certain. Rivers got around from underneath the screen and still contested the shot very well. If there’s one thing Austin does, it’s compete.

Forget the fact this is a blown layup. Focus on two things here. First off, Rivers recognizes that he has a smaller defender on him and that he should probably take advantage of it while he can. Secondly, when he notices that, he actually makes a nice move to get to the rim. He goes right-to-left, goes right by Barea, and knifes through the defense with ease. The issue is that he misses the layup entirely because he opts to go for a right-handed scoop finish rather than a left-handed one, but you live and you learn. The ability he has to get to the rim is nearly unmatched among guards on this current roster. These are the types of things he can bring to the table. It's an awesomely high-quality look that he just missed.

Later on in the first half, with the team needing a jolt of energy, it was Rivers who once again supplied it. The ball is swung to Chris Paul on the left wing. As that happens, Crawford and Rivers switch spots on the right wing, with Rivers taking the right wing and Crawford the right corner. Griffin runs up to set a screen for Paul. As Paul comes around the screen, Raymond Felton completely leaves Rivers wide open from the wing. It takes a simple pass from Paul to Rivers, and Rivers knocks down the open three before Felton can get back in time to contest.

These are the types of shots that Rivers needs to hit going forward. He’s not always going to hit a vastly high percentage of them, but he should be able to make a rather significant portion of the open ones that he does receive. This is an open three fed to him by Chris Paul and Rivers pays Paul back by obliging Chris with an assist. The Clippers preyed on a weak defender and Rivers was the beneficiary. It’s always nice to see him do this.

Late in the third quarter, Rivers is allowed to go into some ISO work against Devin Harris on the right wing. As he’s doing it, Josh Smith walks up to set a slip screen of sorts. Rivers brilliantly acts like he’s going up to shoot the wing three, but instead passes it off to Smith for a wide open three that goes in. While it was a risky chance to take, it was one that paid off for the team.

Rivers plays the odds here. He comes off of the screen and squares up like he’s going to shoot. By doing this, it forces Harris to react to the shot fake. Prior to that, though, Dirk Nowitzki reacted to the screen action by dipping down into the paint as if he expected Rivers to drive downhill towards the rim. Rivers’ driving ability and shot fake freed up everything for Smith. It was up to Smith to make the shot, and he did.

As the third quarter is coming to a close, Rivers grabs a defensive rebound and heads up the court with only a few seconds remaining. He weaves his way through the lazy steal attempted by Nowitzki and charges below the arc. Rivers draws Harris towards him before kicking it out to Wesley Johnson for a corner three that cuts the Dallas lead down to just 6 points going to the fourth quarter.

Let’s commend Rivers for a couple things here. Firstly, he speeds up the court without even hesitating one iota. Secondly, he expertly navigates around the Nowitzki steal attempt and continues chugging along at full speed. Thirdly, he locates where Johnson is going right away and also gives a quick look to his left to spot Josh Smith on the left wing. Lastly, rather than make the cross-court pass to Smith, he keeps driving and draws the defender towards him before dishing to Johnson for the three. Well done.

This is pretty similar to the three Rivers hit late in the second half. The ball is worked to Jamal Crawford at the left elbow and Blake Griffin runs up to set Crawford a screen. As the ball is fed to Crawford, Chris Paul and Rivers switch spots on the right side – Rivers walks up to the right wing and Paul goes to the right corner. Crawford comes off of the Griffin screen at the free-throw line area, which leads to Deron Williams attempting to collapse on the curl. This leaves Rivers wide open again. Crawford goes up almost as if he’s going to shoot, but makes a jump pass to Rivers. Without hesitation, Rivers shoots and knocks down a three to give the Clippers a 99-97 lead.

As noted, this is pretty similar to the other three shown in this Film Room. He switched spots on the weakside wing, got open because his defender hastily attempted to dig down on the ball-handler during a pick-and-roll, and Rivers was once again the beneficiary of said sequence. He’s not always going to hit this shot, but he did in this game and it nearly led the Clippers to a victory. The team hopes he can keep it up.

This final play starts after an offensive rebound. Rivers gets the ball and attempts to work a pick-and-pop with Paul Pierce. Pierce sets him two screens on Williams and Rivers drives downhill towards Nowitzki. Due to Rivers’ speed and athleticism advantage, Nowitzki backs up the entire way and gets off-balance. Noticing that Dirk has no chance of recovering back on a shot attempt, Rivers rises up from near the right elbow and knocks down a mid-range jumper to give the Clippers the lead again.

Whether people want to admit it or not, this is a big time shot for Rivers. It’s one that he’s worked on all offseason with Sam Cassell, and he showcased it right here. He got Nowitzki off-balance, spotted the advantage, and made the defense pay for it. This is part of the evolution of Rivers’ game that a lot of people have been waiting for.

One of the fun things for people to do with Austin Rivers is blindly hate on the guy simply because he’s Doc Rivers’ son and they think there’s some type of nepotism going on there. Without even realizing it, they’re disregarding the impact he has made for the team simply because they think, in their own mind, that Rivers doesn’t deserve this shot or that the Clippers gave up a good player to get him. Newsflash, they didn’t. Rivers has done a lot of good work for the team since his arrival, and Wednesday night was more evidence of that. If only the team could have won the game.