It was a Christmas miracle. After looking lazy, out of it, and just plain uninterested for the better part of the game, the Los Angeles Clippers turned on the intensity, and actually acted like they gave a damn about whether they won or lost. Lo and behold, the Clippers came back in the final 320 seconds (5:20) to upend the Orlando Magic in a game that mattered so much more than just one single win in the standings. This edition of the Film Room will look into the comeback.
In the fourth quarter, the Clippers used a lineup featuring Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan for a grand total of 8 minutes. In the entire game, they only played 11 minutes together. Essentially, when the team needed a spark to ignite them, the lineup that had only played together for just a grand total of 7 minutes prior to last night’s fourth quarter was thrust onto the floor to lead the team in a comeback that might be just the spark the squad needs going further along into the season.
In those 8 fourth quarter minutes, that lineup produced a +75.5 Net Rating. Yes, that is an ungodly number – one that was fueled by their 132.2 Offensive Rating and 56.7 Defensive Rating. It also helped that the unit grabbed 62.5 percent of all available rebounds, as well as posting a 75.1 percent True Shooting Percentage. The lineup dug in defensively, actively tried to make life a living hell on the poor-shooting Magic guards, and then tried to spring out for easy baskets after getting a stop. But it was their overall effort in general that was the eye-opening part of the game. It made you wonder where the energy was all game. So, that’s what we’re going to focus on.
Trailing by 10, and needing a bucket to give them some hope, the Clippers go to the one guy who can get them a bucket on the inside. Blake Griffin brings the ball across midcourt and passes to Jamal Crawford before posting up. Griffin immediately posts up against Jason Smith at the left elbow, and Crawford feeds him a direct pass so that Griffin can go right to work. Griffin faces up against Smith, throws a stutter step to the right before darting back to the left, and he goes directly into the body of Smith. Griffin gathers, goes up strong, and puts the ball in the bucket.
While this just seems like a guy using his superior physical attributes to score a basket, it’s a lot more than that. The team was searching for any kind of life, and this bucket by their best player might have given them that life they sorely needed. On top of that, it wasn’t a jumper. It was something on the inside; something that made the defense respect the interior game of the Clippers rather than thinking Los Angeles was just going to shoot jumpers to get back into the game. It’s a sign of recognition, a sign of growth, and a sign of tenacity. Nothing was given. Griffin earned this one.
On the ensuing possession for Orlando, the Clippers show their fighting spirit. The play initially begins with Elfrid Payton holding the ball a few feet above the top of the arc. Victor Oladipo makes a baseline cut from the left corner to the right side, but he then doubles back as quick as can be in an effort to lose Austin Rivers. However, Rivers shoots the gap and comes through a couple screens before closing out well on Oladipo’s corner three attempt. Rivers plays it smart. He doesn’t lunge or jump at Oladipo’s attempt, but rather he merely gets low and contests it by getting into the airspace of the shooter without giving up dribble penetration. Wesley Johnson secures the rebound, and the Clippers then head out on the break.
Johnson kicks the ball up ahead to Jamal Crawford, and Crawford dazzles in the open court by cutting back to his right. That cut drives him away from the ball-stopping of Payton. From there, Crawford gets directly into the lane, and he generates contact against Oladipo thus leading to a foul. On this one sequence, the Clippers hustled defensively to force a bad shooter into a miss, fought for a rebound by boxing out, and then did something smart by going directly to the rim in transition rather than pulling up for a jumper. It was smart, gritty, and the kind of plays you have to make all throughout the game.
On the next Orlando possession, we see more awesome Clippers defense and teamwork. Payton dribbles into a pick-and-roll with Nikola Vucevic that’s designed to get Payton going downhill towards the rim. However, the Clippers play this well. Jamal Crawford goes directly underneath the screen, and this forces Payton into a decision about whether he’s going to take the wide open elbow jumper or actually drive. DeAndre Jordan gets low in his stance which allows Crawford to recover, and Payton decides to pass it to Vucevic at the left elbow. That’s when the scrambling defense really takes over.
Jordan closes out on Vucevic at the left elbow, and the Orlando center then swings it to Jason Smith at the three-point line. Because Smith isn’t a threat there, Jason kicks it to the right where Aaron Gordon receives it in the corner and Smith sets him a screen. Wesley Johnson and Blake Griffin switch on the screen action with Griffin then getting the assignment on Gordon. The curling action by Gordon is stifled by Griffin, and Gordon has to pass it out to the right wing where Evan Fournier is. Austin Rivers is right there with Fournier on the catch with Crawford shadowing him. Fournier begins his dribble move to the right, but Rivers is right on his hip the whole way. Fournier then has to jump pass to Gordon on the right wing. Griffin closes out, but stays square and low. Gordon dribbles into a spinning fadeaway jumper that Griffin contests well, and the Clippers haul in the long rebound to end the possession.
This one play could be seen as a turning point if you so choose. The entire defense was on a string and playing as a unit rather than as a bunch of individuals. They switched, forced offensive players off of their spots, and then read and reacted before finally getting a rebound to end it all. In a season where the team has struggled to defend quite often, this one sequence with the game on the line in the fourth quarter could be just what the team needed to get back in the groove. Everyone hustled, everyone competed, and everyone did their job. What a time to be alive.
With four minutes to go, and Orlando now nursing a four-point lead, Payton dribbles across midcourt and is met by Crawford after Crawford slips a quick screen by Vucevic. Smartly, Crawford gives Payton a ton of space, and Payton thinks about taking the open jumper before then swinging the ball to Vucevic just below the top of the arc. Vucevic then kicks the ball to Fournier coming off of a little down screen by Gordon on the right wing. After making the pass, Vucevic runs over to set a little screen on Rivers to help Fournier out. Vucevic’s right foot hits Rivers’ right foot, and the guard crashes to the ground. However, the rest of the team then scrambles to help out, and they work as a cohesive entity to snuff out the rest of the possession.
Fournier curls back around the other way, but Jordan is right there in a low defensive stance to meet him at the wing. Vucevic starts to roll to the basket, but Rivers springs off the floor to help cut off the passing lane while Johnson digs down to prevent a pass from that angle. Fournier passes to Gordon in the right corner, and Johnson quickly closes out to contest a possible shot, but he does so by smartly not leaving his feet. Gordon is then forced to dribble the ball. Johnson sticks right to Gordon’s hip the entire way, and then blocks Gordon’s shot attempt before securing the rebound. Once again, the entire team played on a string, rotated as a unit, and then ended it with stellar one-on-one defense. Superb hustle and effort.
We get another defense-to-offense sequence here, and it’s a pretty lengthy one so just stick with it. Defensively, the Clippers have to deal with Fournier coming off of a screen by Vucevic just below the arc. Rivers is the trail defender on the play, and Griffin notices that he has to help out just a little bit. Griffin stays low and squares up to Fournier which allows Rivers to recover in time. Johnson comes over to help out on Fournier but loses Harris for a split second. The pass goes to Harris, and Harris begins his dribble move to the rim. Johnson trails him defensively, and Harris goes up to throw a pass directly to Vucevic, but the ball gets deflected away by Johnson. It comes off the glass and into the arms of Griffin who then starts the fast break the other way.
Griffin explodes into the front court as the ball-handler, and he has multiple options running with him. Griffin slows up a tad, lets the defense fly by him, and he spots Crawford on the right wing. The pass goes to Crawford, who then attacks off the dribble against a scrambling defense, and Crawford then kicks it out to the corner for Johnson. The corner three misses, but Jordan’s there to secure the offensive rebound with good hustle. Jordan then quickly passes to Johnson. From there, Johnson quickly recognizes the advantage and fires a pass to Crawford for a left wing three that gives the Clippers the lead.
Everything in this sequence was good teamwork, as well as good hustle and determination. Defensively, the Clippers stuck to their guys, rotated to help others, and got back in pristine position to challenge what it was that Orlando wanted to do. They forced a turnover and then ran with it. Griffin used his athleticism, attacked, got the defense out of whack, and recognized a mismatch. Crawford then didn’t just heave a shot up, but rather did the smart thing to generate an open shot for a teammate. The initial shot didn’t fall, but the hustle by Jordan down low got them a second chance. He didn’t go back up with it, either. Instead, he kicked it out, Johnson kicked it once to his left, and the open shooter knocked down a three. Teamwork makes the dream work.
In the waning moments of the game, the Magic are trailing by just one point and have possession. Victor Oladipo receives a screen from Nikola Vucevic way above the arc, and Oladipo gets downhill towards DeAndre Jordan after Austin Rivers goes over the top of the screen. Rivers then pressures back into the play, and he and Jordan force Oladipo to dribble the ball off of his own leg. The ball squirts to Tobias Harris, who then tries to attack one-on-one against Wesley Johnson. Vucevic runs up to set a screen, Harris turns it down, and then Harris settles for a super tough mid-range jumper as Johnson stays vertical on the defense. Shot misses, Clippers rebound, and Orlando is forced to foul.
Brilliant stuff all across the board here. Rivers didn’t just die on the screen. He fought over the top of it, got back into the play, and hounded Oladipo from the other side while Jordan squared up to Victor. It forced Oladipo to panic dribble which is party what caused him to lose the ball. After that, Johnson did an awesome job of icing the screen and forcing Harris towards the help defense of Jordan. Harris gets scared, doesn’t want to dribble, throws a pump fake that Johnson doesn’t fall for, and then shoots a tough shot. This was played beautifully by the entire defense.
Lastly, we have a play with 10 seconds to go and Orlando having a chance to go for the tie or the win. The ball is inbounded to Oladipo well above the arc, and Vucevic runs up to set a screen for him. Vucevic’s left leg trips Rivers, and it appears like this play is going to hell for the Clippers. Instead, a good thing happens. Because of Jordan’s hedging on the pick-and-roll, it forces Oladipo into a contested foot-on-the-line jumper that clanks off the front of the rim. Rivers races back into the play and grabs the rebound.
A couple minutes earlier, with 2:19 to go, Vucevic got called for an offensive foul when setting a screen on a play almost identical to this one. Rivers drew the foul on that play. The referees swallow their whistles on this play, but it doesn’t hurt the Clippers because Jordan actually jumps out to defend the pick-and-roll rather than sitting back and letting the guard get whatever shot he wants. Hedging worked in a big way here. Oladipo missed, the Clippers won, and the rest is history.
In the final 5:20 of this game, the Clippers outscored the Magic 17-5. It wasn’t just that the Clippers shot 5-of-8 and the Magic shot 1-of-8, either. It was the kinds of shots that each team got during that stretch. Orlando had only one shot inside 8 feet during that stretch, which came on a putback. Everything else was a jumper of some kind, and it mostly came from bad shooters. The Clippers defended them with intensity, hustle, and an understanding of where everyone else on the floor would be. They’ve been inconsistent this season, but when the Clippers actually lock in and play up to their capabilities then it can be a very scary thing for the opposition – even without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. They need this type of passion more often.