The Clippers are struggling as the season draws to a close. Here are some adjustments they can make as they prepare for the postseason:
Sound defensive rotations
The Clippers’ Achilles heel this season has been their 3-point defense, which stems from poor defensive rotations. They’ve lost a handful of games to some of the worst teams in the league -- the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets and Sacramento Kings – because of their inability to defend beyond the arc.
For the season, the Clippers rank 26th in opponent 3-point percentage and 24th in opponent 3-point makes per game. Despite their ninth-ranked overall defense, the Clippers rank just 22nd in opponent points-per-shot, which factors in the amount of 3-pointers they allow.
“We have to play with a little more sense of urgency on both ends of the floor. Our defensive percentages have gone up, which means we're not playing the defense we're capable of," shooting guard Willie Green said after practice last week.
This, in part, has to do with the Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense. While it’s much improved from last year, it’s still susceptible to breakdowns, especially if the ball-handler can get by the Clippers big man who’s hedging. If this happens, the Clippers are left playing three-on-four, which almost always results in an open 3-pointer or lay-up.
"Our bigs are getting stretched out a little bit," head coach Vinny Del Negro said after practice last week. "They have to have a little sense of urgency in closing out. Some guys can make that adjustment, and some guys are struggling with that but we drilled it again today. That's obviously an area of concern."
Since most NBA defenses focus on packing the paint and preventing lay-ups, the Clippers usually collapse toward the rim when they suffer a breakdown and leave shooters open all over the court. And, of course, there are certainly other reasons the Clippers’ defense slips up, whether it’s a guard getting blown by on the perimeter or weak-side defenders over-helping on a drive.
The Clippers need to get on the same page defensively. The two teams they will likely have to defeat in order to make the NBA finals -- the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder -- are the third and fifth-best 3-point shooting teams in the league, respectively, so the Clippers will need to shore up their rotations and figure out a way to stop the bleeding.
Proper ball movement and spacing
At times, the Clippers’ offense is a work of art: Paul orchestrating from the top of the key, Griffin attacking from the elbow or low post, DeAndre Jordan finishing at the rim with authority, and 3-point shooters spreading out ready to catch and shoot.
Other times, however, it can become stagnant: Paul gets trapped and is forced to give up the ball, Griffin becomes indecisive and timid, Jordan gets fouled and misses free throws, and their beautiful spacing and movement becomes non-existent.
The Clippers’ offense runs basic sets, mainly predicated off pick-and-rolls and Paul’s brilliant improvisation in the half court. But as evident from their loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week, the Clippers are susceptible to offensive lulls and relying on Paul to do too much. Down the stretch of that game, the Mavericks used a blueprint for beating the Clippers that potential playoff opponents may implement: get the ball out of Paul’s hands, by any means necessary.
Whether it’s trapping Paul up top or along the sideline off a pick-and-roll (like the Mavericks did), putting a long defender on him (i.e. the Thunder’s 6-7 Thabo Sefolosha), or simply collapsing on him when he penetrates, teams have shown they’d rather have any other Clipper than Paul try to beat them.
This situation magnifies in crunch time, where the Clippers have struggled this season -- they’re 14-15 in games that meet the qualification (ahead or behind by five points with five minutes or less remaining in the game), and have been outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions. They become predictable, hoping Paul will be able to work his magic and find a high-percentage shot at the rim or beyond the arc.
It works more often than not, because Paul is that good and because the Clippers have enough surrounding talent, but it’s unlikely to be sustainable in a seven-game series against an elite defense with long defenders and smart tactics. The Clippers need to move the ball more, maintain their spacing and remain calm when teams try to stymie Paul. And Paul needs help -- from Griffin, from Crawford, from everyone.
Maintain focus and discipline
On paper, the Clippers have as much talent as any team in the league. They’re young, deep and athletic. They should currently be challenging the Thunder and Spurs for the best record in the West. But the reason they lost those aforementioned games to bad teams, and ensured they’d be no higher than the three-seed, is because they have a tendency to coast and not give their best effort.
While that’s perfectly normal through the course of a taxing 82-game schedule, some of their bad habits in those losses -- lazy rotations, mistimed closeouts and not boxing out -- have caught up to them in recent games against top-tier opponents such as the Thunder or Memphis Grizzlies, and affected their overall play.
“The fact of the matter is teams are getting better,” Green said. “Look at Denver. Look at LA, OKC, San Antonio and Memphis. A lot of teams are getting better as the season progresses. We jumped out to such an early start at the beginning that we had a tendency to let some slippage come in there.”
The Clippers are 17-17 since having a league-best record of 32-9. They’ve been affected by injuries, but so has almost every other good team. Over the second half of the season, the Clippers have simply lost some of the focus that made them so dangerous early on. Even Jordan has said, “We often play to the level of our opponent.”
Whether they have home-court advantage or not, the Clippers can compete with any team they face this postseason. They’ve proven that all year. But poor habits are hard to break, and in the playoffs, every possession matters. As the Clippers close out the regular season, keep an eye on how well their playing, regardless of the outcome in the win-loss column. The process is more important than the result right now.
Stats used in this article are from NBA.com/Stats.