The Big Picture
Despite all of the injury woes, defensive collapses, and chemistry disruptions that have occurred over the course of the season for the L.A. Clippers, there is still a chance to build some timely momentum heading into the playoffs.
Including tonight’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns, the Clippers have just 6 remaining games to close out the regular season. Sporting a 45-31 record, and sitting only a game and a half behind the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference standings, the Clippers also have a chance to attain home court advantage. Clippers fans have good reason to be optimistic. This Clippers team possesses a bevy of talent and has yet to reach its full potential this year. But that’s precisely the problem.
That they have yet to reach their full potential could be viewed as the calm before the storm; maybe the Clippers just aren’t taking the regular season as seriously as they will the postseason. But it cannot be simply glossed-over that the Clippers have suffered some demoralizing, frustrating, and unforgettably bad games this year, against some of the best and some of the worst teams in the league, and sometimes at full health. The Clippers, even factoring-in all of the unforeseen injuries, haven’t truly looked like a threat since their 14-2 season start. And the rest of the West surely doesn’t stack up in their favor.
The Golden State Warriors have remained the league’s dominant two-way behemoth. The San Antonio Spurs have been the San Antonio Spurs, which is always terrifying. The Houston Rockets have enough offensive firepower to seemingly take entire nights off defensively, if they wanted to. The Memphis Grizzlies can be an absolute matchup nightmare in the paint, grit and grind aplenty. The Oklahoma City Thunder are always a threat, as long as Russell Westbrook is around. Even the Jazz, a young team with no playoff expectations, can be quite dangerous in a seven game series. The Clippers must focus on playing the right way and building momentum.
Coming off of a 133-124 win last night against the Washington Wizards, the Clippers proved that they can score a whole lot against a worthy adversary. More importantly, however, they gave up 124 points at home. They also lost the battle for rebounds and the battle for points in the paint. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick each scored at least 20 points, the first time they’ve done so since playing together. This is a major outlier, and it came at a great cost. On night one of back-to-back games, it took 40 minutes from Griffin, 38 from Jordan, 37 from Paul, and 33 from Redick to get the win. And the second unit, which has struggled mightily since Paul’s return, combined for just 7 points aside from Jamal Crawford.
Fortunately for the Clippers, though, they just may catch a break tonight.
The Phoenix Suns, lottery-bound for the 7th consecutive year, have thrown in the towel. They’ve already shut down Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Tyson Chandler for the remainder of the season. Dragan Bender will also likely miss the rest of the year due to injury, and Leandro Barbosa could miss another night or two. And Devin Booker, the best remaining reason to watch the Suns, is still a game-time decision due to an ankle injury. But let’s discuss Booker a bit more.
Booker, a second-year player out of out Kentucky, is the future face of the Suns (and probably already the present face of the franchise). Just a few games ago, Booker had an historic 70-point night behind his stellar 21-of-40 shooting from the field, 4-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc, and 24-of-26 shooting from behind the stripe; he also threw in 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and a block. Booker is an exceptional talent, averaging 21.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game in his second year in the NBA. Booker already appears to be a very special player, with his best yet to come.
The Suns are, perhaps for the first time ever, intentionally and unapologetically in full rebuild mode. With a young core of Booker, Marquese Chriss, Alex Len, Dragan Bender, (maybe) Bledsoe, and at least one more young draft prospect on the way, the Suns are in the process of developing an identity around the vision of general manager Ryan McDonough, along with head coach Earl Watson. The Suns are a modern NBA team offensively, operating at a blistering pace while favoring the 3-point line and transition opportunities. But they are still raw, still learning, so Suns fans will have to wait at least a couple more years to really watch this young squad flourish.
Rebounding and the Interior Threat
Despite all the experience, talent, and size at their disposal, the Clippers are still a poor rebounding team. Conversely, despite their youth, lack of depth, and guard-heavy minutes, the Suns are an excellent rebounding team.
In terms of total rebounding per game, the Clippers rank 23rd in the league (averaging 43.1 per game) while the Suns rank 6th (averaging 44.7 per game). These statistics alone, however, may be a bit deceptive because of where the rebounds come from. The Clippers are actually top-10 in the league when it comes to defensive rebounding, averaging 34.0 per game and ranking 9th overall. The Suns, by contrast, rank 19th in the league in defensive rebounding, averaging 33.1 per game. The Suns do, however, rank 5th in offensive rebounds with 11.6 per game, while the Clippers rank 23rd with 9.1 per game. The Clippers must take advantage of this particular mismatch.
The Clippers willingly concede offensive rebounds in favor of transition defense. This is perfectly acceptable, especially considering the ever-increasing pace of NBA teams offensively. The Suns rank 2nd in the league in Pace (102.75), and might typically pose a threat in this area. Tonight, however, the Suns will be without Bledsoe and Knight, and may also be without Booker; these guards are the primary catalysts of their uptempo offense, so the Clippers can force the game to slow down a bit.
Playing well in the half court will be crucial for the Clippers tonight. By limiting turnovers, going for offensive rebounds, and playing in the paint, the Clippers give themselves the best chance tonight; they’d also happen to be preparing well for the postseason, where the pace slows down and rotations shorten. They’re also playing for the second consecutive night, so pushing their tempo seems a bit risky anyway.
The Clippers have an opportunity to get the ball to Griffin and Jordan in the post more consistently, especially without the presence of Chandler coupled with Len’s propensity towards foul trouble. Jordan leads the entire league in field goal percentage (71.1%) and is always a threat down low. Griffin, while not quite as efficient around the rim, still poses a great threat to any opponent because of his ability to finish in the paint coupled with his floor vision; if he gets double-teamed down low to keep from shooting, Griffin is usually ready and willing to pass, all while shooting 74.9% from behind the line. The Clippers also happen to lead the league in fouls drawn per game (22.3), a major threat against a Suns team with significantly less roster depth.
Creating an interior threat early could also progressively open up the perimeter game for the Clippers, who rank 4th in the league in 3-point percentage (37.3%). The inside-outside threat is an approach with potential well beyond this individual matchup, and the advantage couldn’t come at a better time.
What lies ahead for the Clippers-faithful is great uncertainty; the pressure is ever-mounting and is nearing peak levels. Paul, Griffin, Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, and Alan Anderson are all slated to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. Through the entire Lob City era thus far, the Clippers have yet to reach the Western Conference Finals.
We’ve heard all these narratives, ad nauseam, for quite some time now. It often prompts quick dismissal. But as the end of a fairly disappointing season nears, these narratives are becoming a bit unsettling as each game passes. A game like tonight’s, against the Suns, presents an opportunity that must be capitalized upon. And the opportunity is not winning itself; it is, rather, the opportunity to build confidence, to dictate the pace, and exercise chemistry at a time in which they will need it more than ever before.