The Big Picture
When the L.A. Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks last met earlier this month, it was an excellent representation of the power of momentum. The Clippers, despite shooting well from the floor, rebounding exceedingly well, and narrowing a massive early deficit, allowed the Bucks to dictate the pace at both ends of the floor for nearly the entire game. It was an equally excellent representation of the Bucks’ potential, illustrating why they could become dangerous heading into, and during, the postseason. Individual Bucks performances, from the opening minutes and on, displayed a defensive intensity that galvanized them as a collective unit, which endured throughout the night.
That defensive intensity certainly mucked up the flow of the game for the Clippers, whose carelessness snowballed quite rapidly. They were drawn away from the perimeter much of the night, fumbling close-range interior passes right into the hands, and lengthy arms, of Bucks defenders. The Clippers committed an embarrassingly-high 23 turnovers that night, a figure they need to remember even though they would surely prefer to forget it. But dismal memories aside, the Clippers were in the midst of a tough, condensed schedule and have a lot to be optimistic about going forward.
The Clippers, most importantly, are healthy. With the postseason just a month away, having a roster at full health is vital in developing greater chemistry and rhythm while gaining some timely steam. In addition, the Clippers have one of the easiest schedules in league to close out the regular season. Home court advantage in the playoffs is within their grasp, and they possess the perfect combination of talent and depth to get there comfortably.
The desperate final push for so many teams this time of the year often lays the framework for trap games aplenty. So the Clippers must understand the value of winning games right now. But they must, most importantly, set their sights on the bigger picture: playing the right way.
The Bucks, sporting a 32-34 record and currently sitting in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, have their sights set on the playoffs. It is precarious territory for them in the East, where only a handful of games separate the 6th and 10th place teams. Jabari Parker is done for the season with a torn ACL, Michael Beasley will be out for at least another week or two, and the core of their roster is young and still developing. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have what it takes to take the next step.
The Bucks are led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as “The Greek Freak.” At just 22 years of age, he is not only one of the most entertaining players in the NBA, he is one of the best. He’s a matchup nightmare for opponents, capable of both playing and guarding every position on the floor. Averaging 23.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.8 steals in just above 35 minutes per game, Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in every one of these categories. He is the team’s most impactful player at both ends of the floor, and on a team that ranks 10th in Offensive Rating and just 20th in Defensive Rating, it’s quite difficult to imagine where they would be without him.
But Khris Middleton, who missed most of the season due to injury, is back in the fold. Rookie Malcom Brogdon has stepped up from a very limited role and become a valuable rotation player. Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, and John Henson have all played meaningful minutes as well, but only time will tell if it’s all enough for the Bucks to play much beyond 82 games. This team is certainly athletic, talented, and hungry enough, though, to at least take that next step.
Taking Care of the Ball
The Clippers typically do a great job of taking care of the ball. They rank 6th in the league in turnovers per game (13.1) and 7th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.71). In their most recent matchup against the Bucks, however, they tallied 23 turnovers, 16 of which came in the first half alone. They also allowed 41 points off of turnovers, displaying the inability to defend in transition. The Bucks’s length and athleticism, as well as their ability to defend in isolation situations, were crucial.
In the six games since they last faced they Bucks, the Clippers have averaged 12.8 turnovers per game. This illustrates a modest improvement and, most importantly, a return to form. And in their most recent game, Monday’s loss against the Utah Jazz, a stout team defensively, the Clippers committed just 6 turnovers in the entire game. If they hope to continue this trend and avoid a repeat of last time, they must do three things well: force fast break opportunities for themselves, shoot when open, and keep dribbling to a minimum.
Blake Griffin averages 21.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting 48.1% from the field. DeAndre Jordan averages 12.3 points and 13.5 rebounds per game while shooting 70.1% from the field. Marreese Speights averages 9.2 points and 4.4 rebounds in just 15.9 minutes per game while shooting 44.3% from the field. Between these three alone, the Clippers’ primary front court offense, they average 42.9 points and 26.5 rebounds per game. Combine all of that with the ability for Chris Paul, Austin Rivers, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Raymond Felton to play downhill basketball, and it becomes mind-boggling that the Clippers average just 39.6 points in the paint per game, ranking 27th in the entire league.
The Bucks, conversely, rank 1st in the entire league in points in the paint, averaging 49.5 per game. In their last meeting, the Bucks outscored the Clippers 50-34. This wasn’t much of an aberration from either team’s season averages, but it illustrates a major opportunity for the Clippers. And not just for this matchup, either.
The Clippers’ “big three” of Griffin, Paul, and Jordan can all score either moving downhill or right at the rim. Because of this, they also pose the threat of drawing fouls consistently. In fact, the Clippers are the best in the league at drawing fouls, averaging 22.3 calls per game as a team. And outside of Jordan, every Clipper shoots well above 50% from the free throw line. As much as the Clippers often rely on their outside shooting, it simply isn’t as reliable or as opportune as scoring down low.
For the Clippers, there isn’t much time left in the season to change the way they play. Expecting a major shift in the distribution of scoring this far along is unrealistic. They can, however, try to score more efficiently earlier on. The Bucks provide a great test in pushing the ball down low and forcing higher-percentage shots. Griffin and Jordan are always a threat around the rim, drawing double teams and collapsing defenses. They can get to the bucket efficiently and at least, force foul trouble early. Early foul trouble leads to more reluctant and wary defenses, turning into easier buckets.
Surely, this is all easier said than done. But with the major lulls in the Clippers’ perimeter offense and the inconsistencies and struggles in half court ball movement, there really is no other option for them.
Playing the Perimeter Game
The Clippers rank 5th in the league in 3-point percentage (37.6%), 9th in 3-point shots made (10.3), and 11th in 3-point shots attempted (27.3) per game. These are great offensive averages for a team that dealt with significant injuries much of the season, but they don’t illustrate the inconsistencies. Despite that this is the bread and butter of their offense, it’s statistically unreliable unless performed at an elite level on a nightly basis.
The Clippers currently hold a losing record against teams that are not sub-.500. Playing the perimeter game can be great when it works, but absolutely deflating when it does not. The Clippers only managed to attempt 19 shots from beyond the arc in their last matchup against the Bucks, well below their average of 27.3 attempts per game. The Bucks were excellent at forcing them away from the perimeter, and the Clippers must be prepared for it.
The Bucks played most of their last game against the Clippers feeling pretty confident; they felt even better once they came away with a win. A young, inexperienced, and injury-laden Bucks team handily beat a talented, savvy, and veteran Clippers team with sheer hustle, athleticism, and focus. They’re going to feel like they can do it all over again, so the Clippers must be very careful and very decisive from the get-go.
The Clippers must be aggressive from the opening tip, especially offensively. What has occurred quite frequently as of late is the tendency for the ball to stick in Clippers half court sets. When observing player body language, it is largely the result of delayed or panicked decision-making. More specifically, it comes as a result of not knowing what to do on the fly when the defense alters the course of the offense plans. The Clippers need to push the pace, but must do so carefully. If upon every touch, players can can at least decide quickly whether to drive, shoot, or pass, they will give themselves a better chance against anyone, especially the Bucks.