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Clippers Face Raptors, Hope to Avoid Three-Game Skid

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The L.A. Clippers and Toronto Raptors, both without key players, look to utilize depth and regain momentum.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

The L.A. Clippers and Toronto Raptors each find themselves in a particularly rough stretch of the season. Despite the recent return of Blake Griffin, the Clippers continue to struggle without the presence of Chris Paul. The Raptors, without DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson, have found strength in Kyle Lowry and an improving second-unit but have fallen short in most games as of late.

The Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games and the Raptors are just 3-7 in their last 10. Despite the Houston Rockets losing a lot of games over the last few weeks, they haven’t lost much ground because the Clippers haven’t won a whole lot either. The Clippers now sit in 5th place in the Western Conference, only a game behind the Utah Jazz but only a game-and-a-half out of 7th place. The Clippers will be without Paul for at least the next month, and have sorely missed him at both ends of the floor.

The Raptors and Clippers, aside from their current stretches, have had injury issues all season thus far. They have both been considered contenders for much of the season, but simply haven’t looked great in 2017. In addition, this will be night two of back-to-back games for both rosters, so fatigue could certainly become a factor.

The Antagonist

The Raptors, in just a week’s time, have dropped from 2nd to 4th place in the Eastern Conference standings, supplanted rather abruptly by the surging Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. And to make matters worse, they’re only half a game ahead of the Atlanta Hawks. The Raptors would surely like to avoid the Cleveland Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference Finals if possible come Playoff time, and for anyone contending in the East, earning a top-2 seed is crucial.

Despite their recent struggles, however, the Raptors still have a strong leader in Kyle Lowry. Lowry is playing some of the best basketball of his career, averaging 23 points, 7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals, all while shooting 46.8% from the field and 41.5% from beyond the arc. Despite not leading his team in scoring, he’s arguably the Raptors’ most important player. Lowry is the engine for the Raptors offense, and aside from Terrence Ross, is the team’s only player to have participated in every game so far this season. He is undoubtedly the team’s emotional leader, and at 30 years-old remains in his prime while being the elder statesman of this young squad (no Raptor player is over 30 years-old).

The Raptors have seen increased contributions from younger players Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell as of late, and have found ways to further-maximize the talents of centers Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira. But after playing four games in the last six days, without key players and while their closest competitors rise in the standings, the Raptors may face some fatigue heading into tonight.

Defensive Woes

It wasn’t long ago that the Clippers ranked 6th in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating. They’ve remained formidable offensively, despite many rotational adjustments, but have absolutely plummeted defensively. Per NBA.com, the Clippers now have a Defensive Rating of 105.3, ranking 13th in the entire league; this seems rather innocuous when considering the overall health of their roster thus far, so let’s add some perspective. In 2016, this season, the Clippers ranked 11th with a Defensive Rating of 104.0; in 2017, the Clippers rank 21st with a Defensive Rating of 108.6.

Some recent blowout matchups have significantly impacted these metrics, but overall, the eye test hasn’t been very kind either. The Clippers continue to struggle most in pick and roll coverage and in transition, allowing opponents to score easily and plentifully in the paint. Defensive miscommunication has been an unrelenting theme this year; outside of DeAndre Jordan, Luc Mbah a Moute, Austin Rivers, and Wesley Johnson players struggle in isolation defense, so help-defense has become necessary and routine. Consequently, opposing offenses that have been able to move the ball well while utilizing off-ball movement have punished the Clippers around the rim. This was particularly evident against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland and against the Philadelphia 76ers; the Clippers gave up 66 points in the paint against the Sixers and 64 against the Warriors. Back-door cuts and downhill play by guards left wide-open layups as a result of defenders leaving their man to help in mismatch situations.

The Raptors rank 2nd in the league in Offensive Rating (111.2), 5th in points per-game (109.1), 5th in 3-point percentage (36.9%), and 8th in field goal percentage (46.3%). The Clippers will be battling efficiency and must capitalize upon two key Raptors weakness: assists, and the reliance on Lowry. The Raptors simply do not move the ball well. They rank second-to-last in assists per-game (18.7), and this is largely due to their reliance upon their starting backcourt. Lowry and DeRozan both possess the ability to create their own shot and score in a variety of ways; they carry a large scoring burden, and without DeRozan on the floor, the Clippers have an opportunity. Against a team lacking significant scoring depth and ball-movement, the Clippers must slow down half court offensive sets for the Raptors, allow defenders to stick to their man, and prevent fast-break opportunities. Lowry, coming off of a triple-double in a win against the Brooklyn Nets yesterday, will find ways to score but must be prevented from facilitating for his teammates.

It Takes Everything

The Clippers certainly have a deep roster offensively, but have struggled to find consistency, not in terms of points-scored, but, in terms of how they score. Despite ranking 4th in 3-point percentage (37.9%), 8th in 3-point shots made per game (10.3), and 10th in 3-point attempts per game (27.2), the Clippers rank only 25th in field goal attempts per game (83.7). Part of this can be attributed to their 16-ranked Pace (98.79), but mostly because of their reliance on the three-ball. Their perimeter shooting, especially in 2017, has either become what saved or ailed them. When the shots fall, they can manage to eke out wins against good teams. But when the shots don’t fall, they can struggle against lesser opponents.

Front court scoring must become a pillar of the Clippers offense. Griffin has been stellar since his return, but Jordan (69.2% FG), Mbah a Moute (49.2% FG), Marreese Speights (45.0% FG), and Brandon Bass (59.8%) are under-utilized on the offensive end of the floor. They are all efficient around the rim, and Mbah a Moute and Speights can spread the floor when needed. Most importantly, though, Griffin and Jordan possess an excellent combination of size, athleticism, and efficiency that is rare in a starting 4-5 duo.

The point in emphasizing getting the ball to the big men is how much helps get the entire team involved. When the Clippers go to Griffin and Jordan early and often, it pays dividends; the threat of a dunk or post-up, that is more likely to be converted than not, sends defenses collapsing towards the paint and opens up the perimeter to create easier shots for the rest of their team.

In recent games, we’ve witnessed a lot of isolation offense from Griffin and Crawford. There have been so many wasted possessions where seemingly-endless dribbling or back-and-forth passing between two players has allowed defenses to become set and easily anticipate what will happen next. If the Clippers can manage to become more decisive early in offensive sets, they have the potential to maximize their number of possessions and, consequently, their scoring differential. They rank 3rd in free throws attempted per game (26.0), and have the potential to outperform this average against a team without a true rim-protector and without Patterson to guard Griffin down-low. Allowing guys like Johnson, Mbah a Moute, Bass, and even Alan Anderson (if he gets any playing time at all) to get more involved offensively will be crucial going forward.

If the Clippers hope to get back on track, even without the sorely-missed presence of Paul, they must trust in one another offensively. More importantly, however, they must be defensively mindful and especially communicative against a highly-capable Raptors offense.