Despite their 38-26 record, remaining 5th place in the Western Conference standings, and winning their last two games, against the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls, the L.A. Clippers haven’t truly looked like a winning team since their 14-2 start this season. Injuries were, of course, a major factor. Amidst health woes, roster reconfiguration has played major role in offensive disruption and streaky shooting. But what is most difficult to grasp, and perhaps most unsettling, is the defensive inconsistency with which they play. The Clippers are not lacking in size or rebounding potential, yet they rank in the bottom third of the league in rebounding. They have capable scorers in their front court rotation, yet they continue to give up points in the paint by large margins. This latest stretch of poor play doesn’t have fans feeling very confident heading into the postseason.
With only 18 games remaining this season, the Clippers have yet to find any sort of rhythm since Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have been back together in the starting lineup. Their last two wins were somewhat deceiving, and largely a result of late-game heroics by Jamal Crawford and some help from the other reserves.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, who sit just a few games outside of 8th place in the Western Conference, grabbed a much needed win and did so by playing the right way. The perimeter game wasn't strong for them, but they played to their strengths; they scored down low as much as possible and fought hard for every rebound and loose ball. They got a quick start and, aside from a Clippers surge late in the first half, never really looked back. Karl-Anthony Towns led the way for the Wolves tonight with 29 points, followed by Wiggins, who had 20. In the end, the Wolves walked away with a 107-91 win, leaving all of the Clippers’ vulnerabilities, which have often reared their ugly heads this season, exposed.
The Clippers lost the battle of the boards, as they typically do, against the Wolves by a margin of 14. The Wolves out-rebounded the Clippers 50-36, led by Towns’ 14 and Gorgui Dieng’s 9. One area of emphasis heading into tonight’s matchup was the Wolves’ excellent offensive rebounding ability. But the Clippers gave up 14 offensive boards, the exact difference in total rebounding for the night. DeAndre Jordan, who pulled down 13 boards, was the only Clippers player who had more than 6 rebounds in the game. And aside from Marreese Speights’ 6 rebounds in just 15 minutes of play, no other Clipper had more than 4 rebounds.
The Wolves did an excellent job of rebounding as a team, with everyone who played grabbing at least 1 board and nobody outside of Kris Dunn grabbing less than a pair, including former-Clipper Cole Aldrich, who played just 3 minutes. They also led the defense rebounding battle, 36-26, limiting second-chance opportunities for the Clippers. The Clippers had truly already lost the rebounding battle by halftime, 15-32, a deficit that is difficult to recover from for any team. With their primary contenders in the West ranking in the top-third of the league in rebounding, the Clippers will need to find a way to improve on the glass.
The Clippers gave up 62 points in the paint against the Wolves tonight. The Wolves, conversely, allowed the Clippers to score just 40 of their 91 points from inside the painted area. Even if the Clippers had managed to walk away with a win, giving up 62 points in the paint is simply unacceptable. Towns and Dieng were easily able to recover their own team’s rebounds in 50-50 situations, and miscommunication on switches allowed players like Towns, Wiggins, and Ricky Rubio to cut to the basket when they had a mismatch or when the defensive timing was late. Against a team like the Wolves, who do not shoot a very high volume nor very efficiently from beyond the arc, Clippers defenders should have been better-prepared to prevent dribble penetration. Towns and Wiggins seemed to get whatever they wanted all night from mid-range and within.
Relying on the Three-Ball
The Clippers often live or die by the three-ball, and tonight was an excellent example in illustrating the pitfalls of relying on the perimeter game. As a team, they shot just 5-for-20 (25%), with Paul and J.J. Redick combining to shoot just 3-of-9 from behind the arc, and Crawford missing all of his 3-point attempts.
When the Clippers just can’t hit threes, it would be ideal to go to their interior game, getting the ball down low to Griffin or Jordan as much as possible. But the interior game is most effective when they can also get non-bigs decent looks at the rim. Luc Mbah a Moute, Austin Rivers, and Raymond Felton are all excellent downhill players, possessing the ability to cut to the rim and get layups even when contested. But Mbah a Moute and Felton were virtually non-factors offensively, scoring just 2 points in 16 minutes apiece, and combining to shoot just 2-of-5 from the field. And Rivers didn’t score the majority of his 10 points until it was already too late. The downhill game also often gets them more opportunities at the free throw line.
The Clippers are the league leaders in drawing personal fouls, averaging 22.3 per game. Of these, they manage to average 25.6 free throw attempts per game, ranking 4th in the league. They had just 18 attempts tonight, well below their average, and could have used a boost in this area against a Wolves team that found itself in foul trouble much of the night.
The Clippers defense must improve, and their inconsistency is surely reason to worry. But what has stood out most in their recent stretch of games is the lack of offensive motion. The ball often stays with one or two players during possessions, and off-ball movement is mostly non-existent. The Clippers offense has become frustratingly predictable. The majority of the Clippers offense can be broken down into three main groups: pick-and-roll (between a guard and a big), single-screen hand-offs (a big to a shooter), and isolation shooting.
While it’s a bit late in the season to begin experimenting, the Clippers must inject some new life into their offensive sets if they hope to match the firepower of Western Conference opponents. They must begin scoring more quickly to maximize their number of total possessions; dribbling the ball out or standing with the ball out on the elbow, simply figuring out what to do, just won’t suffice. Because they have so many capable downhill players and so many capable shooters, dribble penetration must be an option going forward. The Clippers bigs have greater size and athleticism than much of the league, and the threat for easy interior points gives shooters better looks or is at least likely to draw some more fouls. Inside-out passing could become a big part of their game if Griffin could speed up his decision-making when the ball is in his hands in-and-around the painted area. The Clippers also lack perimeter ball movement; this, too, is primarily the result of taking too long to make decisions. Players must become better at knowing where they may pass the ball at all times when potential shots are well-contested. Upon catching the ball, players must become better at deciding, rather quickly, whether to shoot, pass, or drive. Over-dribbling has cost the Clippers the potential for extra possessions while also allowing defenders to get set in the half court and anticipate plays before they even develop.
In their 18 remaining games, the Clippers must change something, because their window for securing home court advantage is beginning to narrow. Above all else though, having home court advantage will mean nothing if they cannot somehow become a more dynamic team heading into the postseason.
L.A. Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies
Thursday March 9, 2017 5:00pm PST
FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN
Fox Sports Prime Ticket, AM 570