There has been a lot of talk in the world of sports about whether or not “The Zone” actually exists. You know the moment in question – the moment when you’re so hot from the field that you pretty much black out and can do superhuman things. Well, as the Los Angeles Clippers were beating the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday night, Austin Rivers had one of those out of body experiences. Rivers came into the game connecting on just 4 of his last 36 attempts from beyond the arc. However, that was all about to change.
We begin the action roughly 9 minutes into the game. It’s a SLOB play, and the ball is inbounded from Austin Rivers to Pablo Prigioni. After the ball rotates up to DeAndre Jordan at the top, Jordan sets a screen hand-off for Rivers. Rivers passes off to Jamal Crawford, and Rivers’ defender – Jeremy Lamb – gravitates away from Rivers in order to help on Crawford’s curl action. Crawford takes one dribble, spots the double-team, and passes to Rivers at the right wing for a three. Rivers hoists it up, the ball rattles in, and the Clippers extend their lead to 9 points.
This is probably Rivers’ best way to get involved – i.e. play off the ball. As a lead guard, he’s not really that good orchestrating the offense, but everyone knows that already. His value comes as a slashing guard and perimeter defender. However, his ability to come out of his slump to even hit this first three was huge. The bench does struggle to generate offense at times, so shots like these are huge boosts to their confidence. And if there’s one thing that Rivers does not lack, it is confidence.
Here, we see that confidence start to take over even after just one made shot. After an offensive rebound, Rivers is dribbling near the left wing area while Tyler Hansbrough is shadowing him. Rivers throws a quick little stutter step at him, implying that there was a drive to the basket upcoming, and it throws the big man back about two feet. That extra space gives Rivers the added incentive to shoot this left wing three. It splashes in, and the Clippers now enjoy a double-digit lead thanks to Rivers’ irrational confidence taking over. To be honest, this is a highly ill-advised shot for Rivers to take considering how poorly he’d been shooting the ball from deep this season. However, it seems like when you’re feeling it then you’re really feeling it.
Early in the second quarter, we see the added benefit of Rivers playing off the ball. Prigioni is running the pick-and-roll with Cole Aldrich, and Prigioni throws a nice pocket pass to Aldrich on the roll here. As the defense collapses around Aldrich, he finds Rivers in the corner for an open three that Rivers knocks down. A lot of the stuff the second unit has succeeded with lately has come out of the pick-and-roll between Prigioni and Aldrich, so these kind of looks are going to be there for a corner shooter. In fact, the team ran this very same set the possession before, but Aldrich refused to pass to Lance Stephenson in the corner and instead opted for a wild hook shot that went nowhere. If these are the types of looks that Rivers can get on the second unit, then perhaps his shooting will improve. This is a great find.
As noted up above, Rivers’ ability to be a slashing guard and play off the ball is something the bench desperately needs. On this play, Jamal Crawford and Cole Aldrich start to run the pick-and-roll. As Crawford slices through the double-team at the left elbow, Rivers cuts from the right corner and ends up underneath the basket. Crawford spots him, dishes off to him, and Rivers lays the ball in. Notice how Jeremy Lamb, Rivers’ defender here, anticpates the pass going to the corner because he fell asleep and forgot where Rivers was truly located. This is a fantastic job by Crawford to get into the teeth of the defense and find Rivers, and it’s also a great job by the young guard to take advantage of a defender who stopped paying attention, as well as a defense that was out of whack.
Shortly after the last play, we get the same Prigioni-Aldrich action that netted Rivers that open three from earlier in the game. Prigioni runs a 1-4 pick-and-pop with Wesley Johnson. As Johnson flares to the top of the arc, Aldrich cuts to the free throw line area when he spots his defender, Cody Zeller, walling off Prigioni’s drive. As that happens, Prigioni feeds Aldrich, and Aldrich then finds Rivers on the right wing for an open three after Lamb digs down to help on Aldrich’s roll. This is a really great find by Aldrich yet again, but it’s also a great shot by Rivers. The result of the play is the Clippers getting another double-digit lead, and that’s always important for the bench to do. Also, Rivers’ movement from the right corner to the right wing helped. It made it so Lamb had more distance to traverse in order to recover. Great job by everyone involved for Los Angeles.
Everyone makes fun of Austin Rivers’ floater because it looks so quirky and wild. According to shot tracking data, though, Rivers is 17-of-25 on floater type shots this season. That’s pretty incredible. He was 15-of-22 prior this game, but it still speaks volumes about his ability to make a shot that most deem as ridiculous. On this play, Rivers receives a pick from DeAndre Jordan at the top of the arc. Rivers works around the screen, and then fires up a floater from the base of the free throw line circle right in Hansbrough’s face. The ball goes in, and we’re all left wondering how this is still a thing he’s good at. It’s pretty remarkable that Rivers has this shot down now. Even if some look bad on the surface, they’re still going in at a high rate.
Hilariously, Rivers also begins the fourth quarter with a floater. Like the previous one, this too is over the likes of Hansbrough. However, this is a much more difficult attempt. Rivers comes off of a little double screen, the second of which frees him up to get downhill. Rather than stop at the right elbow for a mid-range jumper, Rivers presses the action by stutter stepping into a hop stop floater that goes in. It looks awkward, it looks wild, it looks ill-advised, but he’s making them – and if he’s making them, then it’s definitely helping the team. This might be just another one of the shots he hit in the game primarily because he was in “The Zone.” Unfortunately, we’ll never know. It’s still a crazy shot that worked.
Lastly, we see the overall impact Rivers can make on the end of the floor that he’s the best at. Hansbrough tries a screen hand-off with Lamb, but Rivers blows the play up by getting a head in there to deflect the ball loose. He scrambles for the ball, comes up with it, miraculously doesn’t fall down, and then speeds up the court in a transition setting. Rather than make a possibly dangerous pass to Crawford off the bat, or even take the ball in for a contested layup, he pulls it out for a semi-transition set. By doing so, Crawford then cuts to the left corner. Rivers finds Crawford in the corner for an open three, the shot goes in, and the Clippers get a huge swing in this game because of Rivers’ defense, speed, and smarts.
The Clippers are not going to get this performance from Rivers every night, at least not on the offensive end. What he does bring, though, is the ability to be the team’s best perimeter defender against guards. That ability alone will keep him on the floor. If the bench unit continues to use him off the ball or primarily out of pick-and-roll sets that get him going towards the rim, then he could further increase his value. As a spot-up shooter in the corner, he’s a serviceable option. If he’s going off the dribble for pull-up threes, then there’s a major problem happening. Either way, Rivers was a huge reason the Clippers won last night. Hopefully his offense from outside 8 feet starts to get on track. It’d be great to see.