Not even a week ago, I wrote a piece for this very site in which I argued that the Los Angeles Clippers are the greatest unknown and most frightening team entering these playoffs. About 12 hours after it was published, Patrick Beverley was mean mugging his way onto the scorer’s table as he and his Minnesota Timberwolves sent his former team to a sudden death matchup with an actual unknown.
What was it Ferris Bueller said again? Life moves pretty fast?
On Wednesday, the Clippers learned the identity of their foe in waiting: the Pelicans of New Orleans, who defeated the San Antonio Spurs in a game not nearly as close as its 113-103 final score might indicate. Led by CJ McCollum (32 points), Brandon Ingram (27), and Jonas Valanciunas (22 and 14 rebounds), the Pelicans made quick work of the visiting Spurs; aside from a run in the fourth quarter, New Orleans had the game in control, their biggest lead reaching 21. And thus, they booked a date with destiny on Friday in Los Angeles, with only the hometown Clippers standing in their way.
These squads faced off a total of four times during the regular season, with the Pelicans taking three, all by double digits. And though the Clippers managed to the fourth matchup, 119-100, it’s fair to say that New Orleans had Los Angeles’ number. Twice, the Pelicans held the Clips to sub-30 percent shooting from three; twice, they forced 15-plus turnovers. That sort of careless, inefficient basketball won’t fly in their do-or-die meeting on Friday.
Against the Timberwolves, the Clippers were remarkably careless, handing over the rock 17 times, somehow only leading to 17 points. The problem? Six of those turnovers came in the fourth quarter helping spur Minnesota’s run, as they chipped away at the slight Clippers’ lead despite the fact that they were without their leading scorer. This season, the Clippers weren’t overly careless with the ball — they turned it over just 13.7 times per game, an average that plopped them directly in the middle of the pack. And though they turned the ball over 17-plus times on 19 separate occasions this season, they only lost six of those games. But against teams like the Timberwolves — a team that led the league in points off turnovers per game this season, one that is fueled by extra opportunities coming in the form of negligent mistakes — sloppy play can be fatal.
The Pelicans aren’t far off in that department: they scored 16.6 points per game off turnovers this season, ninth-most in the league. They’re the type of team that, like Minnesota, feeds off of mistakes. No matter if it’s the regular season or the playoffs (or, you know, that grey area we call the play-in), mistakes are a killer, even of the mightiest giants — which the Clippers have yet to prove they can be and failed to show shades of being against the Pelicans this regular season.
Part of what the Pelicans do so well defensively is that they swarm ball handlers — and their passing options — to the point of overwhelming opponents. Led by rookie Herbert Jones, who should most certainly make one of the two All-Defensive teams this season, they’re a band of pests in the passing lanes, and when guarding the ball, they flail so incessantly that it forces ball handlers into ill-advised decisions. Errant passes, distracted dribbling; the Pelicans are perhaps the league’s most underrated nuisance.
What’s more? Minnesota scored 36 points in the paint on Tuesday, and the Pelicans are even more prolific when it comes to scoring in that area. Their per-game average of 48.4 points down low ranked 11th in the league, while the Clippers gave up 50.1 per game in the paint, the sixth-worst mark of any team this season. In two of the four head-to-head meetings between the teams this season, Jonas Valanciunas led the Pelicans in scoring, dropping 26 and 39 in each, respectively.
At this point, LA’s primary paint-dweller, Ivica Zubac, might as well be a practice dummy; he’s almost incapable of deterring any rim runners and far too often finds himself getting worked by opposing bigs. Valanciunas won’t hesitate to pivot until the cows come home, and Zubac can tend to be slow to react. If he is, the Lithuanian behemoth will take full advantage, ducking underneath Zubac’s outstretched arms to roll in easy layups one by one. Which is exactly what Valanciunas did Wednesday against the slightly more defensively stout Jakob Poeltl, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the paint. I imagine his mouth is already watering as he imagines the wealth of easy buckets he’ll have at his disposal on Friday.
The real threats, of course, reside in the backcourt. McCollum and Ingram are the primary scorers; Jones and Jose Alvarado sprint and rotate at a demonic pace; Devonte Graham shoots too much, but when he’s feeling it, it’s pure.
Now, during the regular season, the Clippers’ defensive rating was 109.5, the eighth-best in the league. But against the Pelicans, that shot up to 113.8, giving the Clips a net rating of -9.5 when they played New Orleans. That would be the worst in the league if it stretched out over the course of the entire season. That’s not exactly a fair measurement, but it’s notable.
There’s a road map for the Clippers to take down the Pelicans, no matter the opposite momentum shifts both teams are on. It runs through Paul George, primarily; his 34 points against the Timberwolves led all scorers. But he’ll need proper support from his teammates beyond just Reggie Jackson and Norman Powell, who added 17 and 16 points against Minnesota, respectively. That means Terance Mann will need to do more than score a single bucket and record a -16 plus-minus for the night; the aforementioned Zubac will have to be as stout defender as he’s ever been, or else he’ll get picked apart; the Clippers defense will have to return to form, as the likes of McCollum and Ingram will happily take all the free shots shaky man-to-man coverage can buy them.
Suddenly, the Clippers that ended the regular season looking like a Cinderella in the making are on the ropes and in serious danger of flaming out before a spark even appears. It’s a new season now; a one-game campaign. Now longer is it about contending for a surprise title. It’s about staying alive.