The Clippers have played the second-fewest minutes in the clutch this season, a total of 38 minutes after five in Sunday’s clash against the Bucks. Only the Utah Jazz have been involved in fewer situations when the score is within five points in the final minutes.
Those minutes haven’t been great for LA. The overall plus-minus in those 38 minutes is minus-22, and over 16 games with crunch time, the Clippers are 7-9. They’re shooting 35.9 percent from the field in those minutes and have committed 29 fouls compared to 23 made field goals. Admittedly, teams have to foul to get back into games, but that disparity is out of control. Meanwhile, opposing teams are shooting 48.7 percent from the field. Add it all up, and the Clippers have the worst clutch net rating in the league.
That continued Sunday, when they were outscored 14-5 in the final five minutes. The Clippers shot 2-of-10 from the field before Paul George’s final heave, including eight misses in a row to effectively lose the game.
“I thought more than anything we should’ve just played with a little more pace,” George said. “That last four minutes we kind of walked the ball up, kind of played a slower offense. We played slow in the half court and we didn’t really give ourselves a chance. By the time we got halfcourt, we tried to set up, it’s already, like, you know, 12, 13 seconds on the clock. I thought we should’ve just pushed the pace — that’s on us.”
The Clippers made some curious decisions on their offensive possessions. On the one hand, running a pick-and-roll with Kawhi Leonard and George makes sense because it allows the two best playmakers to read the defense. The problem is that those two were being guarded by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, so the best-case scenario was being defended by Middleton; otherwise, you’re matched up against the reigning defensive player of the year. To be fair, if the Clippers had just made shots, no one would be questioning the process, but they didn’t.
It was confusing to watch considering the Clippers had built their lead by attacking mismatches. Leonard had Jrue Holiday on him in the post twice, shooting over him once, and then spinning to the middle when the double came to set up a corner three for Marcus Morris. Leonard got Pat Connaughton in the post after that, and just shot over the top of him as well. Ty Lue has said he wants the Clippers to hunt matchups, but they went away from that.
The one time the Clippers got the matchup they wanted was against Donte DiVincenzo. George got past him into the lane to get a shot in the restricted area. Unfortunately, he was stood up by Holiday, who slid in on help defense.
That help was missing from LA’s defensive effort.
With four minutes to play, the Clippers took Serge Ibaka out of the game and went small. The hope was to be more active in denying penetration; the problem was that once anyone — namely, Giannis Antetokounmpo — got into the lane, there was no resistance.
Milwaukee started that stretch by drawing free throws on an offensive rebound, which has been an issue with their small lineups. On the ensuing possession, Patrick Beverley got switched onto Antetokounmpo, so the Bucks threw the ball over the top of Beverley into their MVP, who scored an and-one. A similar situation transpired the next time the Bucks got the ball, when Middleton lobbed an inbounds to Antetokounmpo, and Nicolas Batum was forced to foul him.
And on the pivotal possession of the game, the Bucks whipped the ball around the perimeter. It landed in Antetokounmpo’s hands, and he had a clear lane to the cup.
When asked what the Clippers could have done better on Antetokounmpo, Leonard said, “I guess just help more. A lot of times, he got into the paint and no one was there to help. But he’s a good player, he does it every night. I mean, it’s why he won the MVP last year.”
The Clippers might have been better served with Ivica Zubac in the middle to guard against the Greek Freak. When Antetokounmpo shared the court with Zubac Sunday, he shot 3-of-5 at the rim and didn’t take any free throws, per NBA.com. When the Clippers center was on the bench, the MVP was 9-of-11 at the basket and earned five foul shots.
There are certainly situations where playing small makes sense. The Clippers went small to great effect against Utah last week and had some success against Brooklyn as well. But against a nominal perimeter player with Antetokounmpo’s size, the lineup came up a bit short.
“I thought Zu did the best job on him,” Lue said. “He was physical, he took the bump to the chest, he met Giannis at the basket, and I thought he was really good for us and probably should have went to him down the stretch a little bit more.”
It’s a lesson to apply the next time these two teams meet. But for now, the Clippers are left with the fact that they have to get better at this specific part of their game.