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The Clippers are better than you think on the road, but they have one fatal flaw

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The Clippers have been a dominant home team, and they’re one quarter away from being almost just as good on the road.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers sit in third place in the Western Conference at 16-8, and a large part of their success has been their dominance on their home floor.

After losing the season opener, LA has won nine consecutive home games. The team has handily taken care of games against overmatched opponents, including Oklahoma City without Westbrook, Washington, and Phoenix, and has outlasted tougher teams like Houston, Minnesota, and San Antonio. The Clippers have also had their fair share of drama in three overtime wins against Memphis, Golden State and Milwaukee.

The team’s excellence at home is reflected in its net rating, as LA outscores its opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in the friendly confines of Staples Center. That is the fourth best net rating in the NBA.

“You always hear people say you have to take care of home, and that’s going to be our mindset moving forward,” Avery Bradley said after the team’s win on Nov. 23 over the Grizzlies. “I say it before every game.”

It’s worth noting that even during LA’s surprising, yet injury-riddled, 2017-18 season, their 42-40 record only included 22 home wins. The best teams in the league won 34 home games, or 83 percent, while the Clippers currently project to win 37 in Los Angeles.

On the flip side, the Clippers have been just about average when they hit the road, going 7-7 with a net rating of 1.1. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with batting .500 away from home, particularly since road trips are more likely to include back-to-backs. But it might be worthwhile to look into how exactly LA’s production differs on the road versus at home.

There’s an old axiom that jump shooters shoot better at home, but the Clippers have been a little better offensively when they leave Staples Center; their offensive rating is 111.2 in Los Angeles versus 112.7 away. Their true shooting percentage (which factors in free throws and assigns extra weight to 3-pointers) is 57 percent at home and 58 percent on the road. The Clippers even have a higher free throw attempt rate away from home.

It’s the defense that hasn’t traveled from Los Angeles. The Clippers’ defensive rating is 102.8 in Staples Center, which would be second-best overall in the league, but that plummets to 116.8 on the road.

The glaring weakness in LA’s loss to Dallas was defensive rebounding, and the team’s defensive rebounding percentage drops from 73.7 to 69.5 on the road. The rest of the Clippers’ defensive stats also suffer across the board. Opponents’ effective field-goal percentage increases from 47.9 to 50.3, and their free throw rate goes up from .262 to .284. LA also has difficulty creating takeaways — the opponent road turnover percentage of 11.6 is the lowest in the NBA.

Most of the Clippers’ road losses have been pretty close, but interestingly, their stats in clutch situations have been quite good. They shoot well, they rebound well, and they defend, so the only explanation is they’ve been digging themselves too deep of a hole early in the game.

And that’s been the real problem. The third quarter kings in Los Angeles fall flat after halftime when they’re on the road. The Clippers have a positive rating in every quarter, home or away, except for third quarters on the road. The difference is especially drastic because they beat teams by 22.9 points per 100 possession at home in the third, but get outscored while they’re away. The entire rotation, except for Montrezl Harrell, struggles in this period. On that note, Harrell would be proud to know that the numbers say he gets better as the game goes on.

It’s interesting that the Clippers falter after halftime, because that would seem to be an indictment of the coaching, but Doc Rivers has done an otherwise tremendous job with this team. So what is it that prevents LA from producing during this particular stretch? Are home teams only amped by their fans in the second half? Do opponents use this time to rest up and therefore negate the Clippers’ depth advantage, at least for a few minutes?

The starting lineup has been generally good for LA, especially since Bradley returned from injury, and that’s the group that plays the bulk of the minutes in the third. Perhaps the team gets complacent and doesn’t bring the same effort after building a lead. Last night against Memphis, the Clippers were down nine at the half and outscored the Grizzlies 27-18 to tie the game entering the fourth, but that seems like an unsustainable practice.

When I asked Tobias Harris about the team being less successful closing games on the road last month, he said, “It’s not really a home and away thing, it’s just finding our identity throughout all these games.... It’s still early in the year, but we have to continue to be focused on the road and be able to close out games on the road. That’s gonna be key for us all year.”

If the Clippers were to play out this season at their current pace, winning 90 percent of their home games and half of their road games, they would finish 57-25. That is a fantastic accomplishment that would probably place them in the second or third seed of the Western Conference.

But more than likely, the team’s performance in the clutch will regress, and the Clippers will need to clean up some of their other issues to maintain their success. Fixing the slow starts to the second half seems like a good place to begin.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats.