This game was somewhat different from recent Clippers games in a couple ways, but had some broadly similar strokes to it. The biggest difference is that the Clippers looked quite sharp to start to the game, taking an early lead against Denver through physical, smart defense and snappy ball movement. Lou Williams, starting the game in place of Landry Shamet, was able to get a couple buckets to fall, and Kawhi overmatched the smaller Nuggets defenders. Unfortunately, the defense slipped once the bench came into the game, with the Nuggets relentlessly driving into the paint and either scoring or kicking the ball out for three. The Clippers’ bench, meanwhile, looked ineffective, with no player outside of Lou or Kawhi able to make plays or score offensively. Still, the 1st quarter was pretty solid on the whole, and the Clippers led going into the 2nd.
Unfortunately, the Clippers completely fell apart in the second. They conceded open looks time and again to the Nuggets, who got wherever they wanted to in the paint, from midrange, and behind the arc. The Nuggets started the quarter 9-9, while the Clippers, who had only had one turnover in the first quarter, repeatedly gave the ball away on silly turnovers. The Nuggets soon had a double-digit point lead, one they would rarely concede until the waning moments of the game. Lou and Kawhi continued to score at a solid clip, keeping the Clippers attached, but the defense remained ineffectual, and the Clippers trailed by 14 at half.
The Clippers played somewhat better in the 3rd quarter, with their defense in particular picking up a bit, but their offense still lagged. Turnovers remained an issue, while the shooting from deep stayed chilly. It was only the Nuggets own miscues that kept the Clippers around, but even with some help from Denver the Clippers couldn’t close the gap, and they left the period worse than they started, with a 15 point deficit.
The Clippers’ flailing worsened early, and the Nuggets opened up a 20-point advantage. A timeout by Doc seemed to rally the troops a bit, and a Clippers 9-2 flurry got them somewhat back in the game. As time trickled down, the Clippers chipped away bit by bit, supported by a resurgent defense and some deft offensive work from Montrezl Harrell. Unfortunately, they were a bit too far behind, and their fouling proclivity got the Nuggets free points that the Clippers could not afford to give away. A couple fouls in particular went against the Clippers, and when Pat Beverley fouled out, Doc lost his cool, picking up two techs and an ejection, and effectively ending the game. There was some fight shown, but it was definitely more of a fake comeback than a real one, and it never felt like the Clippers were going to win this game.
Stagnant Offense: It’s unclear what’s happened, but the Clippers fun, free-flowing offense of the past couple years has ceased to exist at this point in the season. The Clippers run almost entirely isolations or simple pick and roll action, especially without Paul George in the game, and there’s very little secondary action or off-ball movement. This has made players like Rodney McGruder and Moe Harkless (who have each averaged over 10 points per game rather recently) almost invisible offensively, as they merely stand in corners and run around the court. The Clippers’ offensive talent is centered on “the Core Four”, but these are all NBA players, and taking them out of the action has really mitigated the Clippers’ effectiveness. This could just be chemistry issues and not knowing the playbook, but for a team that was top 10 in offense the past two years with much less talent, the lack of offensive creativity is a bit weird.
Shamet Slumping: Landry Shamet went 0-5 from three tonight, all on wide open looks, and that kind of simple shot-missing is hard to predict on a nightly basis. If a couple of those go down, this game could have turned out entirely differently. However, at near the midway point of the season, it’s almost time to start calling this campaign a step back for Landry. His numbers are down a bit, but it just seems like he’s having far fewer game-swinging plays than he did as a rookie. The defense, too, seems worse than it did, which is unusual for young players, and could be a sign that he’s struggling either with his confidence or with his new role. The Clippers desperately need him to get going offensively, because when he makes threes it opens up the rest of the offense. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing, as getting Shamet better looks would mean more creative offense, but a lot of the Clippers offense would unlock if Shamet were playing a bit sharper and hitting more of his threes.
JaMychal Needs More Minutes: Even though JaMyke went 1-4 from the field and missed a couple open threes of his own, the past couple games have demonstrated more than ever that he’s the Clippers best power forward. He’s a better defender in the post than Harkless, a better defender on the perimeter than Patrick Patterson, a better rebounder than either of them, and a superior floor spacer than Harkless as well. Moe has been very good this season on the defensive end, but Green is quite simply much more of a big man than Moe is, and offers a ton more spacing as well. I understand why Doc wants to keep JaMyke attached to the second unit, but at some point he probably needs to start and play 25+ minutes per game.
Zu vs Trez: The debate regarding the Clippers’ center position has been raging nearly all season and has only become more heated in recent weeks as the Clippers have struggled. It’s a conundrum, as each has severe strengths and weaknesses and they are totally opposite from one another. Trez is absolutely one of the best offensive center in the NBA, a game-changing dynamo who can spark a run in no time due to his ability to get to the paint and finish around the rim while drawing fouls. Zu is a very good defensive player who offers rim protection, solid-enough switching ability on the perimeter, and strong help instincts. Trez, on the other hand, brings very little of that outside of a few fun blocks, as he’s just too undersized to match up against most premier bigs, and lacks defensive instincts to anchor a defense. Zu, unfortunately, is limited offensively, with his primary value coming through simple pick and roll and offensive rebounding. The one thing that seems clear is that there are nights Zubac should play more than 18 minutes, yet those minutes rarely come. Trez is great, and he’s going to receive a significant deal this summer that he fully deserves. But, some nights, the Clippers need defense and rim protection more than they need another source of offense, and on those nights, Zu needs to receive critical minutes.
Well, this was a disappointing loss. The Clippers effort simply didn’t seem to be there again for much of the game, and at this point a rotation change might be needed. What that is exactly (JaMychal to the starting unit, Derrick Walton back to the rotation) remains unclear, but the Clippers are stagnant and listless right now, and that can’t continue in the competitive top of the Western Conference. If they continue playing like this, they’ll lose homecourt advantage for a significant part of the playoffs, and that could be the difference between a championship and a second-round loss. With that said, they’re still right in the mix, and a couple good wins could bring the positive vibes back. Hopefully a blowout win against the Cavs at home is in the offing, and the energy that could bring might inject some life back into this team.