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Film Room: Austin Rivers' defense needs to be talked about more

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In an ongoing story this season, Austin Rivers is playing some superb defense. Against Minnesota, he showcased a variety of ways he can stop an opponent in their tracks.

Think what you want about him, but Austin Rivers has turned his career around by doing two things that the Los Angeles Clippers desperately needed out of a bench guard – get to the rim at will with the ability to finish, and defend like a crazy person on the perimeter. In this Film Room, we’re going to take a look at Rivers’ defense against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday afternoon. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.

In most of the editions of the Film Room, it has been quite simple to single out something to discuss and show. The game against Minnesota on Sunday afternoon was not one of those instances. There were definitely a few things that could have been shown, but most either already have been or are things we know that we don’t need to look at – i.e. Blake Griffin’s greatness, Chris Paul’s floor generalship, Lance Stephenson’s insanity taking over, etc. With this one, we decided to look at something more nitpicky and nuanced. We’re going to watch Austin Rivers play some defense, and you probably are going to come away with a little more respect for him and the job he does.

According to the tracking data provided by the NBA website, Rivers is holding opponents to 32.9 percent (46-of-140) shooting on the season. On shots attempted from beyond 15 feet, opponents are shooting just 29.2 percent when he’s the primary defender. It’s not as if he’s defending just bench players, though. He’s defended Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, and a host of the league’s premier scorers. Sunday was no different as he was even matched up quite a few times against Minnesota’s sensational second-year stud, Andrew Wiggins. In totality, Rivers did a nice job throughout the game of disrupting a lot of what the Timberwolves attempted to do. Let’s watch.

Immediately on his arrival into the game, Rivers is matched up on Wiggins after a switch between Austin and Wesley Johnson. This is a lengthy possession, but watch a few things that take place on this. First, Rivers does a masterful job of fronting and denying a post entry pass to Wiggins. This forces Zach LaVine into a free throw line jumper that he misses. Fortunately for Minnesota, they corral the offensive rebound and get another look at the rim. Rivers is still matched up against Wiggins, though.

So, Minnesota goes to him this time. Rivers pushes Wiggins away from the scoring zone on the second post-up attempt, but LaVine still is able to feather the ball over the top of Rivers’ fronting. Rivers attempts to disrupt the play by going for a steal, and that actually works just enough because it forces Wiggins to hesitate on the catch. Rivers recovers beautifully back to Wiggins’ body, and Johnson is there to stop any baseline drive. Rivers gets back in position, doesn’t give up much room as Wiggins backs down, and pushes Wiggins towards the baseline and the help defender. Wiggins misses wildly, and the Clippers finally end the possession with a defensive rebound.

A lot of praise should be heaped onto Austin for this one play alone. He denied a post entry pass to Wiggins on the initial action, and then forced Wiggins further away from the hoop on the second opportunity. It allowed a help defender to march across and impede what Wiggins wanted to do. Everyone knows that Wiggins already possesses a devastating spin move, so for Rivers to force Wiggins back where he knew the help defense was is a huge win. Austin denied one entry pass, forced Wiggins off his preferred spot on the second one, and then recovered aggressively enough to push Wiggins towards the defense on the spin move. This is pretty darn good.

On this play, we get Austin Rivers matched up with the savvy Andre Miller. It should be noted that Miller did score a couple times against Rivers in this game. There were two players that Miller used his old-man-game to beat Rivers baseline for crafty finishes, and another where he caught Austin ball-watching and slithered into the paint for a backdoor layup. Those things can happen from time to time. It still doesn’t take away from what Rivers has shown he can do on the defensive end of the court, though.

Going back to this play, we see Austin close up to Miller defensively. His hounding of Miller forces Andre to give the ball up before getting it right back with 10 on the shot clock. The Timberwolves run a pick-and-roll that is designed to get Miller downhill and to the rim. The thing that stops that from happening is Austin Rivers. He plays this perfectly. Rivers knows that Miller is a subpar shooter, so he dives through the screen and beats Miller to the spot. This forces Miller to take the ball wider than he wanted to, and it Rivers contests Miller’s wild attempt that falls short of the rim. It was a situation that showed the awareness Rivers can possess. He recognized his assignment, knew the limitations of who he was guarding, and played it accordingly. Good job.

On this side-out-of-bounds for Minnesota, Rivers is guarding the veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince after a switch. Rivers once again fronts the post man because he knows he can use his athleticism to recover. Rivers pushes Prince off the spot and out towards the three-point line where Miller lobs the ball into Tayshaun. Rivers recovers, gets low, and refuses to give up an inch. Prince is forced into a low-efficiency post-turnaround that clanks off the iron. This is a win for Austin Rivers.

While it looks like Rivers didn’t greatly contest this shot, he did his job long before the shot even went up. Think about what’s happening here. The Timberwolves are willingly isolating players against Rivers on the low block because they think it’ll work. It doesn’t, though. Rivers uses his lower center of gravity and athleticism to keep them at bay. While Prince is certainly longer, Rivers is definitely the quicker and stronger of the two as of right now. Prince can’t back him down, and he ultimately misses the shot because he’s in an awkward position from the get-go. It’s really odd how Minnesota thought attacking Rivers in the post was a good idea.

We get to see how Rivers navigates against the screen game on this play. Gorgui Dieng runs up to set a screen on the left side of Rivers, and Austin fully expects Andre Miller to go that way. In fact, he almost trips over the foot of Dieng getting over the top of it. Instead, Miller goes to the right. However, unfortunately for Miller and company, Rivers stays right with him thanks to a beautiful job of shuffling his feet and staying level with the driving player. Miller then attempts some ridiculous looking fadeaway baseline jumper as Rivers gives a contest. Ball off iron, ball to Clippers, win for Clippers.

Finally, we have probably Rivers’ best defensive play of the entire afternoon. Just watch him on this sequence. It’s a side-out-of-bounds for Minnesota with Wiggins as the inbounder and Rivers as the defender. Wiggins inbounds, immediately runs to the right block to post up, but it does not work. Rivers fronts Wiggins immediately after getting over the top with a swim move, and the Timberwolves have to reinitiate their offense. Wiggins tries to repost a little further out after Rivers pushes him away from the block, but Miller can’t find a passing lane over Rivers’ fronting. Miller looks for Wiggins a third time, but there’s no passing lane available due to Rivers’ tenacious ball denial. The ball eventually swings back to the top of the arc where Nemanja Bjelica bludgeons Paul Pierce off the dribble and dishes off to Gorgui Dieng for the layup.

Some might find fault with Rivers at the end for not contesting Dieng’s attempt, but there’s nothing he could do. He flat out disrupted this entire possession by just bullying Andrew freaking Wiggins. The breakdown at the end is on Paul Pierce primarly, and also on Josh Smith for stepping up way too far in an attempt to take a charge rather than trying to play straight-up defense and forcing a tough shot that way. But, back to Austin. This is sensational. Rivers denies three post entry passes to Wiggins by just being stronger, feistier, and smarter. Most impressive.

Everyone has an opinion on Doc Rivers’ son. Most people think he’s nothing more than a novelty act at this point, but those are the people who don’t watch him on a game-by-game basis and understand a lot of the stuff that he’s doing for the team. A ton of people scoffed at his comments about him wanting to make First Team or Second Team All-Defense this season. While he most likely won’t get there, he certainly has shown a penchant for being a ruthless defender through the first 17 games of the season. If he keeps this up, more people will be forced to take notice. For now, he’s under the radar. And that might be just what makes him so dangerous.