It’s not fun to look back on any loss. It’s even tougher to look back on a loss that effectively ended your season after your team had a chance to make franchise history. But someone’s got to do it. This is the final installment of the Film Room series for the Western Conference Semifinal Round against the Houston Rockets. We covered Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5, and Game 6 already so all that was left was Game 7. This is it. Try not to get too squeamish.
One of the themes of Game 7, much like in the preceding two losses that got Houston back into the series, was that the Los Angeles Clippers just kept missing all the open shots they were given. The only two players to consistently nail their open shots, for the most part, were Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. It didn’t matter what they did offensively, though, as the Rockets were able to stymy everyone else through sheer luck at times and also through pressure at other times. Another one of the themes was Houston turning Los Angeles turnovers into points. The Clippers couldn’t do the same. That was a big part of this game. One of the other big themes was Clippers weakside defenders just leaving guys open as they over-helped onto a driver for no reason.
This is the third overall possession of the game and the second one for Houston. The Rockets turned the ball over on their first possession and the Clippers decided to pay them back by doing the same as Matt Barnes stepped out of bounds after making a move. This is the ensuing possession and sees Jason Terry bring the ball up the court and getting it to James Harden after the Rockets run him and his defender through some screens. Harden and Dwight Howard quickly run into their bread-and-butter pick-and-roll right after Harden receives the pass. Howard makes a sharp cut to the basket but sees himself get shut off from any potential alley-oop attempt. What happens here that works against the Clippers is that Matt Barnes digs down on a semi-cutting Josh Smith for no reason. Blake Griffin’s in position to defend the Harden drive, DeAndre Jordan is there for backline support, but Barnes still helps off of Trevor Ariza in the corner.
Naturally, Ariza nails the corner three shot and the Rockets get out to an early lead. Ariza shot 37.1 percent on uncontested threes this year and only 33.3 percent in the playoffs prior to Game 7. He was 6-for-11 on uncontested threes in Game 7 alone and was shooting 40.6 percent on them in the six games prior to Sunday afternoon. The problem was systemic for the Clippers. They routinely left wide open corner shooters when they helped on a James Harden drive after the Rockets ran a pick-and-roll. It’s smart playcalling by Houston but also dumb planning and execution by the Clippers. If something routinely kills you, wouldn’t you stop doing it rather than being stubborn and keeping up with the status quo? Apparently not.
After a J.J. Redick three ties the game early on, Houston comes down and runs another one of their sets that the Clippers never fully adjusted to. They pass the ball around the top of the arc for a little bit until it gets back in the hands of James Harden. Credit to the Clippers defense initially as they stopped quite a few things Houston wanted to do on this possession. They stopped a Harden-Howard pick-and-roll, an Ariza wing three, and forced the Rockets to reset with roughly ten on the shot clock. Harden gets the ball back, dribbles into the face of Redick – who played him well all series long – and finds a cutting Josh Smith along the baseline as Blake Griffin inexplicably loses sight of him.
The thing Griffin does wrong here is that he gets up too far without realizing where his man is. He assumes that Smith is going to stay in the corner, gets up above where his man is, and then doesn’t even contest on the Harden slip pass. You can’t do that. It’s lazy and it’s not something that should ever happen in a Game 7. Griffin gets caught in No Man’s Land and the team paid for it. Credit to Harden for reading the Smith cut and credit to Smith for reading that Griffin had no clue where he was on the floor. It’s things like this that plagued the Clippers time and time again in the final three games; a complete lack of situational and spatial awareness.
On the next possession, the Clippers did something they did all game. They turned the ball over. Chris Paul tries to make a tough jump pass to DeAndre Jordan but Dwight Howard gets a finger tip on it, Jason Terry saves it, Dwight Howard runs the break, and then finds Josh Smith for a layup. Like Game 6, it was a confluence of errors. The issue here is that when Paul starts his drive, there are four Clippers below the free throw line. Ultimately, all five Clippers end up below the free throw line as Paul turns the ball over. That cannot happen. It leads to easy runouts and easy points for a team that thrives off of them. Houston loves chaos and they used chaos to undo the Clippers. Maybe Paul went too fast here, maybe guys were in the wrong spot, etc. All that happened is that the Clippers got out of sorts and Houston took advantage of it.
Yet again, we see the Clippers screw up and it leads to a Houston papercut. All those papercuts turned into a groundswell of bleeding that Los Angeles ran out of Band-Aids for. The Clippers get a steal, get a runout, and then Chris Paul tries to hit J.J. Redick on a drive. It works but Redick gets caught in-between and tries to dump it back off to Paul. Unfortunately, the pass takes a deflection and Houston gets a runout the other way that results in a wide open three for James Harden. The Clippers did a few things wrong here, obviously. First off, Redick and DeAndre Jordan were running the same lane. That can’t happen. Redick, as the three-point shooter, should have peeled off to the corner to space the floor and let Jordan fill the gap in the middle. Instead, he ran the same lane and it clogged everything up. Secondly, everyone got too concerned with stopping the ball that they never paid any attention to someone running back into the play. Jordan corrals Terry but everyone else leaves Harden and, well, you know the rest.
In the second quarter, after a made Clippers basket, we see some of the randomness from Game 6 pop back up. Pablo Prigioni inbounds the ball to Josh Smith and Smith just casually dribbles into the frontcourt as Blake Griffin checks him. It looks like Houston is about to run into their 4-5 pick-and-roll that sees Smith toss lobs to Howard over the top of a clueless defense. Instead, Smith just rises up and fires a three as Griffin and DeAndre Jordan rub onto Dwight Howard in an effort to stop any possible roll to the basket. Should Blake Griffin have been closer to Josh Smith here? Yes. However, that is a shot you want Smith taking. The Clippers can’t help the fact that Smith turned into Kyle Korver over the final five quarters. Smith went 5-for-8 on threes over that stretch while the Clippers shooters went cold. To put it into perspective, Smith and Corey Brewer were 7-for-11 from three over the final five quarters while the entire Clippers team went 9-for-37. Playoff randomness.
A little bit later in the quarter, we see what plagued the Clippers pop up yet again. The Rockets run a simple dribble screen handoff for Harden with Smith as the passer. Harden then expertly splits the double team from Griffin and Redick in order to get into the paint. From here, he has options. He can either hit a cutting Dwight Howard on the baseline or pass out to Trevor Ariza for a three. Jordan rightfully steps up to contest the Harden layup and sort of blocks off the pass to Howard in the process. This leaves the pass to Ariza as the viable option and Harden takes it due to Jamal Crawford getting caught just watching and trying to recover. Ariza sinks the three and the Houston lead is pushed back to 13 as the Clippers search for any answer defensively on the perimeter.
It seems mean to point at Jamal Crawford as being a defensive sieve but it’s the truth. The team was far worse with him on the court defensively than when he was off of it. With him on the court against the Rockets, the Clippers had a 112.8 Defensive Rating in 199 minutes. In the 137 minutes he was off the court, the team had a Defensive Rating of 90.9. Over the final three games, it was even worse. The Clippers had a 132.7 Defensive Rating in 77 minutes with Crawford on the floor and 94.5 in the 67 minutes with him off of it. This wasn’t all Crawford’s fault, though. As we saw, Matt Barnes left guys open sometimes, as well. Except that no one did it more than Crawford did and the team routinely had to pay for his mistakes. He also gave the Clippers nothing offensively. If he’s not giving them anything offensively then he’s a major liability and detriment to the entire team.
Early in the third quarter, the Clippers had the Rockets lead down to eight points before their bad luck surfaced again. After a great defensive possession that sees them force a Harden turnover, Redick throws an outlet pass to Barnes but Barnes wasn’t looking for it. Ariza darts into the play, steals the pass, and nails a three to push the lead back to double-digits. Credit to Trevor Ariza for not giving up on the play and making a heads up read on what was happening. But this is just more bad Clippers stuff. They played a great defensive sequence only to then throw the ball away and see themselves pay for their foolishness. Time and time again this game, the Rockets feasted on Clippers mistakes. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so much before you blow the whole thing off.
Yet again, the Clippers get the Rockets lead down to eight but this was after they had it down to three at one point earlier in the quarter. And, yet again, the Clippers get made to pay by the Rockets for laziness and foolishness. Another great defensive possession goes down the drain as Los Angeles fails to do the simplest of tasks; boxing out a perimeter player. Pablo Prigioni, of all people, darts in between Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers for an offensive rebound that he kicks back out to Trevor Ariza for another backbreaking three. This one is on Rivers. He simply loses sight of where Prigioni is and doesn’t even go compete for the rebound. Griffin is stuck in the corner with Ariza and can’t crash down as much as he’d like, either. This leaves Rivers to rebound the ball but he never does. He lets Prigioni waltz right by him, snag the ball, and make a pass to push the lead back to double-digits again. The little things. They all add up. And it was another bullet to the foot.
You have to give credit to the Clippers; they never gave up. Even with the Houston lead pushed to as much as 20 points, the team still tried to fight back. The problem was that they just could not hit open shots at all over the final three games of this series. J.J. Redick gets a wide open three in transition that would have cut the Houston lead down to 15 with just inside ten minutes to go. That would have left enough time for stuff to happen. He misses the wide open three and Houston gets the rebound. Missed chances, missed shots, missed rebounds, missed everything. The Clippers were effectively killed in all phases when they simply needed just one to go their way. Even J.J. Redick, who shot 45.8 percent on uncontested threes in the regular season, slumped at the end of the series. Overall in the playoffs, Redick shot 39.7 on uncontested threes. In this series, he shot 36.8 percent on them. In the final three games, he careened down to 20.8 percent. In the prior eleven games of the playoffs, he had shot 51.3 percent on uncontested threes. Perhaps a regression was due but not a regression like that. Playoff randomness.
With the Rockets lead down to eight and still a minute to go, the Clippers had the slimmest of hope left but crazier has happened in basketball. Los Angeles does a good job of trapping James Harden and forcing him to give up the ball. Harden finds the outlet to Terry who swings the ball to Terrence Jones. Jones makes a nice dribble move to the lane and finds Trevor Ariza in the corner for – wait for it – an uncontested three as Jamal Crawford left him open. Crawford had to help onto Dwight Howard a little bit but he still takes way too long to recover out to the corner. Everyone else on the Clippers does their job pretty well. Griffin rotates up to force a Terry pass, Jordan rotates out to force Jones to put the ball on the floor, and Crawford slips onto Howard. The issue is that Crawford recovers too late after Jordan rotated and cut off the lane. Open three. And that’s the game.
This is the final shot of the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Clippers season. It’s an Austin Rivers pull-up three down by 13 with 15 seconds to play. It doesn’t matter that he missed. It doesn’t matter that the ball went over the top of the backboard. It doesn’t matter at all. I just wanted to show the final shot of the season. Hats off to Austin Rivers for playing well in this series during the first few games. It made all the difference in the world, especially in Game 1 and Game 3, and it helped the Clippers get on the brink of their first ever Western Conference Finals appearance. He’s going to get a ton of crap heaped onto him just because he’s Doc Rivers’ son but that’s just because people are idiots. He played well in the playoffs and we couldn’t have asked for more from him.
All in all, this series flipped because of two reasons. They’re pretty simple reasons, actually. The Clippers just went ice cold on uncontested shots after nailing them early on. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why it happened. It just happened. After averaging 40.0 uncontested shots per game in the first four games, they saw that number balloon up to 48.0 per game in the final three games. They got eight more per game; and made roughly ten percent fewer of them. It happens. Guys not named Blake Griffin or Chris Paul went 29-for-88 (33.0 percent) on them while averaging 29.3 uncontested attempts per game over the final three contests. After nailing 43.5 percent of their uncontested threes in the first four games, they bottomed out to 25.0 percent in the final three games. This is after seeing their uncontested three-point attempts per game go from 21.3 in the first four games to 25.3 in the last three games. The Clippers were getting great shots. They just didn’t hit them. It was a bad time to go cold.
The other reason this series flipped was because of Houston’s roleplayers finally showing up. As a team, Houston shot 33.3 percent on uncontested threes in the first four games of this series. In the final three games, however, they shot 45.3 percent on them. And this was all while getting fewer attempts per game. The Rockets averaged 24.0 uncontested three-point attempts in the first four games but just 21.3 uncontested three-point attempts in the last three games. They saw fewer open threes yet hit them at a higher rate than the team who saw a ton of open threes did. The Clippers shot better on uncontested threes this year than the Rockets did yet they switched bodies when the Clippers tried to close the series out. It happens. You have to live with it. There’s always next year. It sucks that it went the way it did but extremes like this, even as unlikely as they are, do happen in sports. It’s what makes sports so great. And also so heartbreaking.