While we all know that the bench unit struggled mightily against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night, one of the things that some people around the sports blogosphere seem to be glossing over is just how well the starters played for the Los Angeles Clippers. In their time together, the unit was able to move the ball well, score almost at will, and sort of dominated the great Warriors starting unit. In this edition of the Film Room, we’ll take a look at the time each unit spent on the floor against each other and see what, if anything, we can derive from the game.
First things first; the Warriors were without dominant defensive center Andrew Bogut for this game. They have been without him for the last several games due to a concussion, but that hasn’t really impacted how their starting unit has played. While Festus Ezeli has taken over for him, the unit really hasn’t lost much in the way of anything based on numbers. Going into last night, their starting lineup that they used against the Clippers had started three games together and produced a Net Rating of +17.0 in 34 minutes. They were also holding opponents to a 44.4 Effective Field Goal Percentage. That all changed last night, though.
In last night’s game, that Warriors starting lineup played 14 minutes together, but had a -7.3 Net Rating together and gave up an astonishingly high 80.0 Effective Field Goal Percentage to Los Angeles’ starting unit. That starting unit for the Clippers has played awesomely together this year; accumulating a Net Rating of +24.5 in 91 minutes together. Last night, despite the heavy competition, they put up a +19.4 Net Rating. These are no flukes. This unit is really, really good. When the two entities shared the court last night, it was the Clippers, not the Warriors, who displayed fundamental cohesiveness and overall dominance.
The Clippers have an issue that came up quite often throughout the first five games – when do you finally sit Jamal Crawford in favor of Lance Stephenson down the stretch with the rest of the starters? To people on the outside, it seems like that needs to happen sooner than later. It seems warranted, as well, due to Stephenson’s overall good play to start the season. Five games is a small sample size, but Stephenson has made his impact felt in some way during four of the games. If a guy is doing good things for you 80 percent of the time, you should want to play him more. But, without further ado, let’s roll the footage on starters versus starters.
We begin our action very early in the game and the Warriors having possession. Stephen Curry brings the ball up and gets a screen from Festus Ezeli. It’s all a ploy to get Ezeli going downhill towards the paint. Chris Paul fights over the screen as DeAndre Jordan strings Curry out to the sideline. Ezeli rolls to the rim and Curry feeds him with a gorgeous pass. When the pick-and-roll action starts, though, Blake Griffin is just below the top of the arc. He reads the play as it happens. As the pass is fed to Ezeli, Griffin slips down into the paint and tries to beat Ezeli to the spot in order to contest. Ezeli goes up with the shot, but Griffin contests it with verticality and then blocks the shot entirely. Clippers rebound and the possession is over.
While it seems like a simple defensive rotation stops this play, it all starts from the beginning. As Curry dribbles to receive the screen, Jordan does an excellent job of stringing him along the sideline and forcing a difficult pass back to the middle of the floor. From there, Griffin stays involved in the play rather than falling asleep. By staying into the play, Griffin sees the roll by Ezeli and beats him to the spot in order to contest the shot. Ending it with a block is just icing on the cake. Everything that went into this was great. The other thing to notice is that Griffin leaves Draymond Green wide open at the top of the arc. It was a schematic choice, much like they did against the Phoenix Suns and Markieff Morris.
Due to foul trouble, Stephen Curry only played a couple minutes in the first quarter before having to sit down. The next time all ten starters were on the floor together wasn’t until roughly five minutes to go in the first half. The Clippers were down by 10 points at the time thanks to their bench being the most inept group imaginable. Out of a side-out-of-bounds, the Clippers recognize that J.J. Redick is being guarded by Curry. They run Redick off of a DeAndre Jordan screen and inbound the ball to him. Redick then swings it to Blake Griffin and receives a screen handoff from him at the top of the arc. As the screen from Griffin comes, Curry goes underneath it and gives Redick all the space he needs to shoot. Redick knocks down the three and the Clippers cut the lead to single-digits.
This is one of the ways that Los Angeles loves to attack Golden State defensively. They like to locate whoever Curry is guarding individually and run Curry off of a screen or two in order to free the player up. Even though he’s improved defensively, Curry still makes critical mistakes like this one. Instead of going over the top of the screen and forcing Redick to put the ball on the floor with 11 seconds on the shot clock, he dives under and leaves him enough room to shoot. Curry on Redick just isn’t a winning formula for the Warriors.
Here we have a rather lengthy possession thanks to Draymond Green poking the ball away on the perimeter. Initially, we see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin run a variation of their pick-and-pop action. DeAndre Jordan runs up to set the screen and, as he slips, draws the entire defense with him to the rim. Paul passes back to Griffin below the arc and that’s when Green pokes the ball loose. Griffin picks the ball up and resets the offense with 9 on the shot clock. He dribbles into a dribble handoff with Lance Stephenson before posting up on the switched defender, Harrison Barnes. Stephenson kicks it back to Griffin in the post and Green has to double onto him because Barnes won’t be able to handle Griffin at all. The second Green rotates over to double, Griffin kicks it out to Stephenson for a three that cuts the lead down to 6. These are the shots the Clippers need out of Lance Stephenson.
Initial action on this play is interesting. It looks like Griffin was attempting to take Green off the dribble before Draymond was able to poke the ball loose. Despite the possession getting flustered early, the Clippers never panicked and went back to a good friend of theirs – Griffin in the post against a smaller defender. The off ball movement by Stephenson is especially smart here. He passes to Blake in the post and starts tiptoeing back to the top of the arc a little bit just before the double comes. When the double comes, he throws his hands up so Griffin can see him and then sinks the shot once he gets the ball. This is a good job by the starters.
This is another improvised play by the starting lineup after the initial action gets screwed up. Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan run a simple 1-5 pick-and-roll. On the initial screen action, Klay Thompson sort of slips for no reason and this gives Paul the space needed to get around the pick and get downhill into the lane. Jordan rolls to the rim and Paul feeds him beautifully on a pocket pass. As Jordan goes up for the dunk, he loses control of the ball off the backboard and it bounces towards the right wing. Stephenson sees it, hustles for the ball, snatches it up, and immediately makes an aggressive play. He drives straight down the paint and finds Griffin underneath the hoop for an easy dunk.
A lot has been made about how Stephenson has fit in with the starting unit this season, but he’s been just fine. Plays like these show that. Despite not being involved in the play at all initially, he still made his presence felt in a good way by being heady and hustling. He didn’t hesitate for a single second once he got the ball and made an awesome read to Griffin for the jam. Originally, this play results in a dunk attempt for Jordan but Jordan blew it. It’s two high-quality shots on one possession against a really, really, really good defense. These are the kinds of things you want to see.
As the third quarter starts, we get something similar to one of their earlier possessions. Paul feeds Stephenson on the wing and the Clippers once again get a slip screen switch with Griffin getting into a post-up against Barnes. From here, Stephenson passes down to Griffin and immediately runs to the top of the arc. Green doubles down on Griffin yet again, but this time he anticipates the pass out coming. So, when he goes to double, he sort of shows a double with the intent of retreating back. Except, it doesn’t matter. Griffin passes the ball out perfectly on time to Stephenson and Lance nails the three from the top of the arc to cut it down to 6. While Draymond helps and recovers solidly, the advantage of Griffin in the low post against a mismatch continues to kill Golden State.
Finally, we have a variation of something that Golden State can’t defend at this moment in time. As Paul dribbles across midcourt, he passes off to Redick and UCLA cuts through the paint. Griffin then runs over to receive the pass and start a handoff with Redick. The screen on Thompson by Griffin happens, and Redick comes off of the screen acting like he’s going to shoot. When Draymond contests the shot beautifully, Redick dumps it down to a rolling Griffin. Due to the rotation, Ezeli comes over to contest a shot, but Griffin does a wonderful job of resetting with a mini-post. Griffin then gets deep into the chest of Ezeli, and scores with a right-handed hook shot.
During this sequence, we get to see the added benefit of having Redick at the two-guard spot. Because of how much he affects spacing and gravity on every possession, defenses have to account for him more than they probably want to. He opens up a lot of things. The thing that he opens up here is that he frees Griffin up from Green’s defensive prowess. It gets Griffin switched onto a player he can get into the chest of and finish over. By getting into the chest of Ezeli, Griffin negates whatever shot-blocking advantage Festus has here. Not shockingly, it finishes with a bucket.
There were several other plays that happened throughout the course of the game as the two starting units played against each other, but we would spend all day in this Film Room diagnosing them. Rather, it’s quite interesting just how well the starting unit of Los Angeles played against the vaunted defense of Golden State. While it seems like they didn’t cut all that much off the lead from the time they came onto the floor, their ability to hit shots and give the Warriors problems defensively cannot be undersold. The guiding light for the team so far has been their starting unit and, while that doesn’t shock anyone, it’s quite lovely to watch.
These two teams play again in a couple weeks at STAPLES Center. By that time, Golden State should have Andrew Bogut back. As solid as Festus Ezeli is defensively, Bogut is miles better and does alter some more things. If the Clippers bench can’t produce meaningful minutes, then it might not matter how much the starters outplay and shine against Curry and company. For now, take solace in knowing the unit did awesome things on Wednesday night in a hostile environment. It was their first big test of the season, and they passed it with flying colors – if only the rest of the team could say as much.