The Clippers are still learning how to play without Austin Rivers, and it shows.
At times, Doc Rivers put lineups on the floor that excelled against the Memphis Grizzlies, shutting down Tyreke Evans and company offensively and running the floor to rack up layups and free throws. At other times, experimental lineups crumbled under the Grizzlies’ defensive pressure and conceded easy buckets to a suspect Memphis attack.
Largely, the successes and failures were random, and almost all of Doc’s lineup tinkering was forced by the absence of shooting guard Austin Rivers, who has been a full-time starter since the third game of the season, filling in for Milos Teodosic and now Patrick Beverley. He’s averaged 15.8 points and 3.6 assists on the season, shooting 41.9% from the field and 40.5% from deep, proving to be one of the Clippers’ most potent offensive weapons.
The recent returns of Teodosic and Blake Griffin, along with the continued excellence of Lou Williams, leave the Clippers with plenty of offensive production elsewhere in the lineup. The hole that Rivers leaves at the shooting guard position, however, is less easily filled. Williams must stay on the bench, where he thrives leading the second unit and is asked to take on less challenging defensive assignments. Rookie guards Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell can both be counted on to play hard, but have each struggled with consistency and foul trouble this season. And the only other player on the team who can be considered an option at shooting guard—C.J. Williams—has earned the starting small forward role in recent weeks while Danilo Gallinari recovers from a partially torn glute muscle.
On Sunday, Rivers went with Jawun Evans in the starting lineup, and it didn’t go very well—Evans picked up two quick fouls trying to guard Kemba Walker, and spent much of his first career start stuck on the bench in foul trouble. Tonight, against a much bigger Grizzlies squad that starts two 6’6” guards, Doc Rivers opted to slide C.J. to shooting guard and start Wesley Johnson at small forward. Johnson has struggled mightily in the last month, and finished with 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 fouls in 16 minutes. The team lost those 16 minutes by an abysmal 17-point margin. Johnson has made only 2 of his 32 three-point attempts since November 25th.
C.J. Williams, for his part, didn’t seem to mind sliding to a new position. He matched his career-high with 12 points in the first quarter, and finished with 18 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals, shooting 7-10 from the field and 3-4 from deep in 29 minutes. Tonight was C.J.’s 41st day on the Clippers’ roster. As a two-way contract player, he is allowed to spend just 45 days with the team before his contract is either converted, or he is assigned to the G-League for the remainder of the season. When asked about his mindset after the game, his sentiment was simple: “I just enjoy every moment of it.”
C.J. was far from the Clippers’ only standout performer tonight, though. Lou Williams had his 8th 30-point game of the season, finishing with 33 points and 6 assists as he led the Clippers to yet another victory. Blake Griffin also added 21 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds, including a late three to help cement the victory. And the Clippers’ second unit, facing an uphill battle after the starters relinquished a double-digit third quarter lead, put L.A. firmly back in the driver’s seat with an impressive performance to close the third and open the fourth.
Sindarius Thornwell had a well-rounded 12 minutes, with 2 rebounds, 2 blocks, an assist, and a steal, and Sam Dekker continued his run of solid bench play with 6 points and 2 rebounds. Willie Reed, who has been stuck on the bench during Montrezl Harrell’s dominant run as the backup center, got some minutes tonight and finished a +17 in 12 minutes. Doc Rivers said after the game that he decided to go with Reed because the Memphis Grizzlies were using Marc Gasol with their second unit, and he wanted a larger defender on the All-Star center.
Defensively, the Clippers were effective against Tyreke Evans, but struggled overall. Evans still had a solid game, but was limited by the Clippers’ trapping defense on pick-and-rolls. The Grizzlies as a whole, however, shot 48% from the field and the Clippers conceded far too many lay-ups, letting a poor offensive team score 105 points against them. It was that lack of defensive intensity which led the Clippers to be almost unable to make up for their poor offensive third quarter, which is a concern of its own. Sunday against the Hornets, the Clippers had to fight back to overcome a miserable second quarter, and tonight it was the beginning of the third. Even with Teodosic running the offense, they’re struggling to put together a consistent attack with the starting unit. It’s the kind of struggle that you can survive against Charlotte and Memphis, but probably not against Oklahoma City and Golden State—the two next teams on the Clippers’ schedule.
For now, it’s good to get a win and stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt. The Clippers are now 17-19, one game behind the 18-18 New Orleans Pelicans and a game and a half behind the 19-18 Portland Trail Blazers. Looking even farther upwards in the standings, 5th-place Oklahoma City is 20-17, well within LAC’s striking distance with over half of the season remaining.
Let’s just hope that they get Austin Rivers back for Thursday’s game.