Saturday night’s game wasn’t exactly a fun game to watch. The flow sucked, the way the Los Angeles Clippers started out the game sucked, and the way the team got back into the game only to get blown out again really sucked. All credit goes to the Houston Rockets. They exploited mismatches early, mismatches late, and just gave Los Angeles all sorts of fits. What we’re going to watch is a little, roughly, three minute stretch of action as the Clippers were trying their best to get back into the game a little more. It starts off with them down by 8 points. Doc Rivers began the second half with Jamal Crawford at small forward instead of Luc Mbah a Moute. He thought he needed the offense. However, what Rivers clearly forgot was that defense also matters – and Trevor Ariza exploited that small detail.
This is frustrating. The Clippers played sound defense for 21.4 seconds out of a 24 second shot clock only to have Trevor Ariza get wide open for a three on a baseline-out-of-bounds (BLOB) play. It’s simple action. It’s really simple. All Ariza does is cut a few feet to his left, step back behind the arc, and splash a three. How did he get so open? Because Jamal Crawford went under a non-screen by Donatas Motiejunas instead of attacking over the non-screen. If he attacks over, it forces Ariza to put the ball on the floor with less than 3 seconds on the shot clock. That’s what you want to do as a defense. You don’t want to let a career 35 percent three-point shooter get a clean look on a play like this. It’s maddening.
Sure, in the grand scheme of things this is a simple three that pushes a lead from 8 to 11. But it was so much more than that. The team had found a way to get the lead under double-digits, and then this happened. Breakdowns like this can’t happen in any game, let alone one you’re trying to mount a comeback in. Maybe going under here is a coaching or schematic decision rather than one by Crawford. However, at a certain point, you have to know better. Attack over the top, force the ball on the floor, and make Ariza drive into the defense for a tougher shot. You absolutely positively cannot let what transpires here actually happen. It’s brutal.
On this play, the Rockets are trying to get James Harden moving into a pick-and-roll, and they eventually get it. As Jason Terry passes to Motiejunas, Harden is standing in the right corner with J.J. Redick wearing him like a cheap shirt. Motiejunas turns, dribbles to the right wing, and Harden cuts up to receive the hand-off. Motiejunas sets the screen, Redick goes over the top, and Griffin slides to his right to prevent possible paint penetration. It looks like Harden has nowhere to go. However, to Los Angeles’ dismay, Harden finds a passing lane to Ariza on the left wing because Crawford helped down on Harden coming off of the screen. This allows Ariza to get off another open three, which he nails, and Houston pushes their lead from 6 to 9 just like that.
I get it. You want to make other people beat you on the Houston Rockets. Allowing James Harden to get whatever he wants is how a lot of teams lose. But, at the same time, you can’t help one pass away. Not when the guy you’re helping off of just hit a three from that exact same spot roughly 90 seconds earlier. There was no reason for Crawford to even help here. Griffin slid his feet well, denied access to the lane, and it gave Harden almost nowhere to go. The reason it’s “almost nowhere” instead of just “nowhere” is because a passing lane opened up thanks to Crawford. You can’t help like this. It undoes everything everyone else did on this one possession.
About 90 seconds after the previous play, we see Ariza’s third and final three of this stretch. The Clippers have cut the lead back down to 7, but that’s not about to last too long. Motiejunas runs up to set a screen for Harden, and the Rockets go into their bread-and-butter pick-and-roll action. Motiejunas gets going downhill, the Clippers string Harden out wide to the left, but Harden fires an absolute bullet of a skip pass to Ariza in the right corner. Ariza gets the ball, is wide open, and makes another three as Crawford is too late to contest. The Houston lead is pushed up to 10, and the Clippers would not get the deficit back under double-digits until two minutes to go.
Let’s talk about this play. You do want to help out on the roller here, but you can’t leave someone wide open in the corner like this. If you are going to help on the roller, you have to make damn sure that you can get back to the guy in the corner. What plagues Crawford on this play, though, is that he got way too far away from Ariza, but he also did not get close enough to Motiejunas. He was stuck in no man’s land. There wasn’t even an attempt to really dig down on the roll. He sort of stops halfway there, and then he has nowhere to go. Either help all the way or don’t help at all. Ariza is left too open, yet again, and he knocks down another three because of it. Sometimes you have to know your personnel. The Rockets did. Unfortunately, the Clippers did not.
This wasn’t done to blame Jamal Crawford for Saturday night’s loss. Everyone was culpable both in their play and in their decisions against Houston. No one was without blame. Still, this three minute stretch of action as the Clippers were getting buckets and cutting into the lead really haunted them. They let a solid three-point shooter get off easy looks because a defender chose to play him like he didn’t exist. A lot of this stuff could be fixed, but it’s also been something that’s killed the team all year. Maybe they need to do more scouting on who they’re facing, or maybe they just need to actually be smarter in their decisions overall. Either way, these types of plays are the things bad teams do on a nightly basis. If the Clippers want to improve, it starts with being smarter. It starts from the top. We shall see what changes, if any, are made.