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Closing Games: The Jamal Crawford Lineup Worked

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There are plenty of reasons why the Clippers lost last night, but the fourth-quarter lineup with Jamal Crawford wasn’t one of them.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

One topic that has gotten a lot of attention in the Clippersphere over the last few weeks is the issue of who should close games at small forward. It’s pretty much become unanimous that Luc Mbah a Moute deserves to start—his defense is noticeably swinging pretty much every game, and his offense has become respectable: on the year, he’s making 40.5% of his threes (he’s not really as good as that sounds, but he’s hitting wide open corner threes) and attempting them 3.5 times more often than he did last year. He’s also been more effective on cuts and on driving past closeouts—his two-point percentage is up to 58% after sitting at 48% last season.

So yeah, Luc’s been good. Good enough to start and play plenty of nightly minutes. But should he be closing games? Or should those minutes go to Jamal Crawford?

The arguments in favor of each player are clear. Mbah a Moute is clearly the better defender of the two, while Crawford is clearly the greater scoring threat. You don’t want Crawford defending the other team’s starting small forward on most nights, but outside of a tiny sample size this year, you don’t especially want important possessions to end with Mbah a Moute shooting. You don’t want Jamal Crawford taking the ball out of the hands of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who are superior players, but the fact that Luc doesn’t touch the ball at all makes those stars’ jobs harder on offense.

So where does that leave us? With a surprisingly simply cop-out non-answer: it depends. There is no abstract, one-size-fits-all answer to this question—it has to vary based on opponent, time, and score.

If the Clippers had been up 8 points with 9 minutes remaining last night, Luc would have been the logical play to try and prevent a Paul George-sparked Pacers run. But they weren’t. The Clippers were down by 20, and at that point, Crawford made more sense.

If you start the clock when Chris Paul checked back in to the fourth quarter last night with 9:37 remaining, and stop it when the Clippers began heaving threes and intentionally fouling with 1:00 left, there’s no doubt about it: the Jamal Crawford lineup worked. The Clippers went +16 in about 7 minutes with Crawford on the court, and -3 without him—specifically, the Paul George dagger with 1:00 remaining.

They didn’t even do this against a team without a threat at small forward—Paul George is one of the league’s premier players, and the Clippers had to cross-match Griffin on George and Crawford on power forward Thaddeus Young. In a stretch where the Clippers went on a 20-7 run to turn a 91-71 score into a 98-91 score, Young scored all seven of the Pacers’ points. Jamal Crawford can’t guard power forwards, but in this instance, it didn’t matter: 7 points in 7 minutes to Thaddeus Young is an acceptable outcome if nobody else on the team can score, and you’re able to get defensive rebounds and put up 20 points in 7 minutes on the other end.

Again, it’s situational. The Jamal lineup worked last night, but it won’t work every night. Sometimes, the Clippers won’t hit shots like they did, and the other team won’t miss. Sometimes, the opposing PF will score far more than just 7 points when guarded by the much smaller Crawford. Using that lineup has a higher upside and a higher downside than a lineup with Mbah a Moute—exactly the reason why you’d play Mbah a Moute to hold a lead, and play Crawford to spark a comeback.

The Clippers lost last night for plenty of reasons. The second unit was awful in the first half, and the entire team took a nap in the third quarter and let the Pacers walk all over them for a 35-17 blowout quarter. Chris Paul turned the ball over 5 times, and the team totaled 20 turnovers. Paul Pierce obviously didn’t help things (although his impact was minor compared to the other reasons).

The team looked tired, more than anything. They had just returned from a six-game road trip, and completed 5 weeks without more than one day off between games. That doesn’t just mean they didn’t have time to rest—they also haven’t had time to practice, making it hard to contain slippage. This is now the fourth loss in the last 10 days that can be directly attributed to sloppy and lethargic play—turnovers, lazy defense, passive offense.

Now, the Clippers have 2 days off to rest before a big game against the Warriors. They’ll have a practice (tomorrow, they took today off to rest) to prepare for the game and catch up on offensive and defensive adjustments. They surely won’t have a problem motivating themselves to play their most hated rival—a team they have beaten just once in the last two years.

Moving forward, they’ll have to find better solutions than Wednesday offers. With another tough, dense stretch in the schedule coming in mid-December and ending in early January, LAC needs to find a way to bring energy every night if they hope to keep pace at the top of the conference. It’s still early in the year, but avoidable, regrettable losses are already stacking up, and before the Clippers can even worry about home-court in a looming second-round match-up with the Spurs, they have to deal with the pesky teams nipping at their heels. Currently, Houston is just one loss back, and Oklahoma City and Memphis are two losses back each.