As disappointing as it was to see LA look so listless, it was perhaps more surprising given how well the Clippers had been playing. They had a 13-point lead at halftime, were shooting the ball well, and had kept the Thunder out of sync on offense. Victory was by no means assured, but there was every indication that the Clippers would be competitive down the stretch yet again.
Instead, the team crumbled. Let’s try to break down exactly what went wrong.
The Clippers didn’t move the ball well on offense.
Against the Wizards Sunday, LA showed how beautifully this team can play when the ball hops and “finds the energy”, as Doc Rivers put it. That ball movement was nowhere to be found in the third quarter. By my count, the Clippers took at least contested six jumpers when there was no effort to bend the defense to create an advantage. That will not work in most cases, and especially not against a team with strong individual defenders like the Thunder.
When the Clippers did attempt to move the ball, their passes were either weak or off target, often failing to account for the extraordinary length of the Oklahoma City perimeter players. The entire team was culpable here. Tobias Harris missed Danilo Gallinari in transition for what would have been an easy finish. Patrick Beverley threw a horrific lob to Marcin Gortat that was closer to being a floater. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a few feet wide of Avery Bradley on a kickout pass. Montrezl Harrell tried to hand the ball off to Lou Williams in the corner, but the Thunder got in the way.
Simple exchanges on the perimeter even proved difficult, as OKC players pounced on lazy passes, and then went flying in transition off of turnovers, which leads us to our second problem.
The transition defense was horrible.
Bad offense often leads to bad defense. Turnovers create transition opportunities where the offense has a numerical advantage; missed layups disrupt floor balance; and when teams are scrambling to get back in defense, cross-matches can be exploited by the offense. These were all problems for the Clippers in the third quarter.
LA called its first timeout of the period with 9:22 left because of the team’s offensive struggles. What followed were 8 consecutive Thunder points in transition generated by a steal and two bad passes. Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson were both able to finish over Harris on the break, and when Ferguson stepped on Beverley’s ankle during the final sequence, Russell Westbrook capitalized on the 5-on-4 opportunity by finding Grant for an open three.
Even in semi-transition when the Clippers managed to get all their players back on defense, they still had difficulties. Harrell got matched up with Westbrook after SGA turned the ball over on a pick-and-roll, and the former MVP blew by him for a layup. On the next play, a trailing Steven Adams set a simple drag screen for Paul George, freeing him for a straightaway three. OKC hit the transition trifecta after a missed layup by Bradley allowed Westbrook to hit ahead to Grant for a wide-open finish.
The defense couldn’t stop fouling.
The Thunder got to the line 11 times in the third quarter, compared to zero for the Clippers. LA fouled OKC all over the floor: in transition, on jumpers, on the perimeter, and in the post. The Clippers were lucky that the Thunder only went 6-of-11 on free throws — otherwise, this could have been even worse.
The best player on the floor was Paul George.
George had a fine first half, notching 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 assist, but he really came alive in the third. He started off the period by reminding the Clippers why he’s a three-time all-defense selection, using his length to bother Harris and Gallinari at the rim on consecutive positions. He blocked Gallo again later in the period and continuously harassed the Clipper guards on the perimeter.
George lit it up on offense as well, scoring 14 of his 32 points in the frame, including 3 threes. He had seven rebounds in this stretch to jumpstart OKC on the break and even managed to facilitate for his teammates, adding 3 assists in the quarter to account for 21 of the Thunder’s 39 points.
No one on the Clippers could match George’s production, though Harris fought admirably to keep the Clippers in fighting distance. LA also couldn’t find a way to to guard George. His activity jump-started the Thunder’s run, and it was almost surprising when his three-quarter court heave to end the quarter didn’t swish through.
It was only 12 minutes, but it’s worth considering what elements of this disastrous stretch could pop up again.
For the year, the Clippers turn the ball over at a high rate (15.2 percent of possessions, per Cleaning the Glass). Generally, teams that don’t run a lot of isos turn the ball over more, but the Clippers will still have to clean up their passing. LA also surrenders a high frequency of transition opportunities (16.3 percent of possessions), which dates back to last season, so OKC was just the latest example of that trend. The Clippers have been fouling like crazy all season, ranking 28th in the league before yesterday’s game in defensive free-throw rate. There’s also a good chance that LA won’t have the best player on the floor on many nights.
Therefore, nothing that took place in the third quarter is that out of the ordinary — it just seems like the Clippers managed to have all their worst tendencies manifest themselves together. What was most out of character was the failure of the team to respond to adversity. This group has played hard all season, using its collective strength to overcome talent disadvantages. That was missing against the Thunder, and the Clippers know it. Hopefully, that fight returns for LA soon.