TrueHoop: Jamal Crawford

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

May, 3, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Stephen Dunn/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers will be pushed to the brink without a healthy and effective Blake Griffin.

The void
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin didn’t practice Thursday and spent a good portion of the day receiving treatment on his right ankle, which he sprained severely Monday, one day before the Clippers’ Game 5 loss in Los Angeles. If Griffin can’t go in Game 6, or is largely ineffective as a post presence on the offensive end, the Clippers have big issues. They’re not a team -- like San Antonio, for instance -- that runs an airtight system fueled by interchangeable parts. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are indispensable to their team’s success, but the Spurs can subsist for long stretches without them because the offensive objectives don’t change with their absences.

The Clippers need Griffin down low, where he draws defenders and forces rotations, and in the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, which forces the Memphis Grizzlies’ big guys to account for him, Chris Paul and the space around them.

The contingency
How can the Clippers absorb Griffin’s absence? On Thursday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said that if Griffin isn’t available, veteran multitasker Lamar Odom would start at power forward for the Clippers. Odom’s presence on the floor with the starters would give the Clippers yet another versatile ball handler and a crafty -- if occasionally freelancing -- team defender. But a better bet might be to go small and hand the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward to Matt Barnes. That would enable them to replicate the successful formula of the bench and open up the game. The Grizzlies like chaos, but their very particular controlled brand of chaos, not the outright disorder a small-ball Clippers unit would bring.

This scheme wouldn’t be without serious challenges for the Clippers. They’d probably have to send quick double-teams from the top of the floor to help Barnes on Zach Randolph, something they did fairly effectively in spots during last season’s epic Game 7. And Paul has always preferred a more controlled approach to half-court offense. But the Clippers will need to move this game from paint to the perimeter, and Barnes at the 4 for significant periods certainly would do that.

The juggernaut
Not exactly a label we normally affix to the Grizzlies’ offense, but racking up 114.4 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers in Game 5 definitely clears the bar for locomotive status. The Grizzlies have done a masterful job of moving Marc Gasol and Randolph around the half court, and by doing so, they’ve been able to cross up Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the bench bigs.

This isn’t stuff we haven’t seen from the Grizzlies before: pin-downs by Gasol for Randolph, or vice versa. Pick-and-roll-and-replace with Mike Conley and both Gasol and Randolph. The Clippers aren’t a bad defensive team (ranked ninth this season in defensive efficiency), but Memphis’ execution on these sets has been crisp, timely and deceptive. As capable as the Clippers are at defending initial actions, if a defense throws multiple-choice questions at them, things have a way of breaking down. That’s what we’ve seen over the past 3½ games from Memphis, and the trend line keeps improving.

The Q
When the Clippers have grasped for answers after the first quarter, they’ve frequently tapped a three-guard lineup composed of Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Not a terrible idea in theory, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has countered that combination with Conley, Tony Allen and reserve Quincy Pondexter.

Memphis has been winning this battle. Allen smothers Crawford, who has shot 43.8 percent during the Clippers’ three losses (only 3-for-11 beyond the arc), and many of those attempts have been with a Crawfordian degree of difficulty. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s size and brawn have bothered Paul. The Clippers point guard tallied 35 points in Game 5 but hasn’t distributed the ball (only 14 assists combined over the three losses). Offensively, Pondexter has given the Grizz some needed stretch, which has been just enough to complicate the Clippers’ rotations and give Gasol the room he needs to work. Bledsoe pesters Conley, but the Grizzlies have adjusted, running the offense through Gasol at the elbow or having Tayshaun Prince initiate possessions with Conley off the ball.

Playoff teams need X factors, players who outperform their baseline production. Pondexter has been that difference-maker in this series, and it’s helped Memphis inordinately.

The consequences
For Memphis, closing out the Clippers on Friday night by winning the series’ final four games would be a resounding success after a sometimes tumultuous season. Dealing Rudy Gay created a lightning rod in Memphis and a period of discontent between Hollins and management. Randolph voiced his objections to some of the new wrinkles in the offense introduced after Gay’s departure and struggled after injuring his ankle in March, which was a major cause for concern. More than all that, though, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold (and in Memphis, it’s also served deep-fried with a heavy sauce), and we’ll see a fully catered event in the Grizzlies’ locker room on Friday night if they can close out the series.

On the Clippers’ side, a loss would be devastating. A 56-win team that looked like a serious contender for much of the season and as recently as 10 days ago would return to Los Angeles with some fateful questions: Paul’s free agency, doubts about roster composition, questions about managerial structure, unhappy ownership and Del Negro’s future.

Summers in Los Angeles are generally temperate, but if the Clippers bow out in Round 1, there will be a high-pressure system hanging over the Clippers offices and training facility in Playa Vista, Calif.

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

April, 25, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul: The All-Star point guard that dare not speak its name.

The unspeakable
At Grizzlies practice on Wednesday, Tony Allen was asked very generally what adjustments his team needed to make in Game 3. Allen catalogued the greatest hits -- rebounding, “X factor” Eric Bledsoe, pick-and-roll coverage and “we need to try to make someone else beat us.”

Allen wasn’t referring to the aforementioned Bledsoe, rather Chris Paul.

Reporters are in the clarity business, so one asked Allen to confirm that Paul was, indeed, the person of interest. Allen conceded that he was. “I didn’t want to say his name,” Allen said. “I don’t mind talking about it. He is who he is. He’s an All-Star point guard. He’s been a pain in our behind these last two games, and we want to go out there and try to do our best to do a better job of containing him.”

Since Allen has been fixated on Paul since the Clippers point guard banked in the game winner in Game 2 on Monday night, it bears considering whether Allen will draw Him as his primary defensive assignment in Game 3. Cross-matching is fraught with risk because the rest of Memphis’ backcourt is on the small side, which means Chauncey Billups could post up and Jamal Crawford could rise and shoot. But the alternative -- having Paul probe the middle of the court unfettered -- could be fatal for Memphis.

The block
After battling foul trouble in Game 1, when he finished with only 10 points in 25 minutes, Blake Griffin quickly established himself as the focal point of the Clippers’ offense early in Game 2. Possession after possession in the first quarter, the Clippers fed Griffin down on the block, at one point on four consecutive possessions -- left, then right, then left, then right.

There’s still a vocal contingent that believes Griffin’s post game is nothing more than a jack-in-the-box -- a long windup followed by a random burst -- but Griffin beat Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur with jump steps, spins to get baseline when the defender crowded him, spins to get middle when the defense was stretched. All the while, Griffin did his John Wooden Best, acting quickly but never hurrying.

The Grizzlies looked for Gasol down low, as well. Gasol drew mismatches, then dragged the likes of Caron Butler to the post. Arthur pinned DeAndre Jordan at the elbow to allow Gasol to move low a step ahead of his defender. And they had Gasol roll deeper with the intention of getting him the ball closer to the basket.

All of this highlights one truism -- the Clippers need Griffin and the Grizzlies really need Gasol to score down low.

The whistle
Last season’s seven-game tilt between the Clippers and Grizzlies was an absolute slugfest. Perhaps in response, this season’s series has been officiated far more tightly, at least through the first two games. There’s some debate as to whom that favors, but the Grizzlies seem far more frustrated by the bevy of foul calls than the Clippers.

Asked on Wednesday how to avoid the kind of ticky-tack fouls that are hampering his team, a salty Lionel Hollins responded, “Stop committing ticky-tack fouls.”

Hollins has seen his team give up several points in the series by fouling 30 feet from the basket while the Clippers are in the bonus. The Grizzlies know better. They also know they’re the superior defensive team, albeit the one with less foot speed. As they come home for Game 3, the Grizzlies need to focus less on gladiating and more on what they do best as a defense -- sending opponents to destinations on the floor they have no desire to visit. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.

The freak
The word is out on Bledsoe who, in 32 total minutes, has outrebounded the 7-foot Gasol, wreaked havoc on the Grizzlies’ backcourt and injected into the series an element of chaos. That's a quality that normally favors Memphis, but has worked to the Clippers’ benefit over the first two games.

Allen is right -- Bledsoe is the series’ X factor, the player whose speed exposes the Grizzlies’ lack thereof, and whose pressure upsets an opponent that needs a modicum of space to get what it wants offensively.

No instructions exist to contain Bledsoe, apart from waiting for him to self-combust, which will happen from time to time. Bledsoe averaged 16 minutes over the first two games, but Vinny Del Negro kept him on the floor during the Clippers’ fourth-quarter surge in Game 1. The Clippers’ coach has gradually invested a level of trust in Bledsoe, one that will continue to pay dividends when the game calls for some guerrilla warfare.

The coach
Speaking of Del Negro, a number of NBA insiders and observers have come to a similar conclusion: He’s coached his tail off over the first two games of the series.

Rather than shorten the Clippers’ rotation, the much-maligned Del Negro returned to what worked in November and December, when the Clippers played championship-level basketball for nearly eight weeks -- two well-defined units, with extended minutes for Paul and Griffin and slightly abbreviated stints for the starting wings.

So far as play calling, Del Negro still defers much of it to Paul, but has also installed a number of nifty sets that use Paul off the ball in order to get him some live catches and destabilize the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense. And watch for another pretty scheme where Paul dishes the ball off to the wing, makes a UCLA cut before reversing course to set a back screen for Griffin.

These are just a couple of examples. Each game, the Clippers show off a few new wrinkles in what’s been an otherwise rudimentary offense during Del Negro’s tenure as coach. The stuff is working -- and Del Negro and staff deserve praise.

Memphis at Clippers: Five things to watch

April, 22, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Grizzlies can't -- and probably won't -- get pummeled on the glass as they did in Game 1.

The Glass
Finding signs of encouragement after a 21-point loss can be like leading a search party in the dark, but if the Grizzlies are looking for some reassurance, it should come in the near certainty that they won’t be outrebounded again by a 2-to-1 margin. If that seemed unprecedented, that's because it was. Memphis didn't come anywhere close to a margin like that in any game during the regular season.

There’s a general belief that rebounding doesn’t slump in the NBA. A team like the Grizzlies, which dominated the boards in the regular season (second in overall rebounding rate), doesn’t forget how to ply its trade. Short of injury or a deliberate strategy like a zone defense or fronting the post -- tactics that can make it harder to crash the glass -- a debacle such as Saturday night's is an outlier.

The Grizzlies better hope so. They’re not a team endowed with much perimeter firepower or natural athleticism. They win basketball games by controlling possessions, something they simply can’t accomplish if the Clippers are collecting 42 percent of their misses.

The Point God
Chris Paul exerts an element of control over a basketball game that’s uncanny, and this hasn't been news in ages. What’s more interesting to observe is how he manages his role within the emotional and strategic contours of that game, not unlike LeBron James, in a sense. Is Paul creating for others, or hunting shots for himself? Is he conserving energy off the ball, or is he in Probe Mode?

On Saturday night, the answer was all of the above, and that’s really where Paul needs to be for the Clippers to achieve their full potential as an offensive club. We saw some new wrinkles to the Clippers’ half-court game, with Paul not exclusively an initiator but also a scorer. He came off screens for live-ball catches in a couple of inventive sets, the kind of stuff we haven’t always seen from the Clippers. But Paul also claimed several possessions for himself to test the mobility of the Memphis big men.

For Memphis, the pick-and-roll coverage has to improve, and the Grizzlies know that. They’re an exceptionally well-prepared group that’s completely devoted to the execution of a very intelligent defensive system. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and several players laid it out Sunday at practice.

“The guards have to do a better job of pushing up on the ball handlers,” Mike Conley said. “They were flipping the screens, so our big would show one way, but then their big would flip the screen and Chris would see it. I’d run into the screen pretty good and he’d get a full head of steam on our big man, and you can’t guard him when he’s got a full head of steam with the confidence he has in the paint.”

A defense might not be able to take away Paul’s confidence, but it can take away some real estate.

The Gamble
OK, so who’s going to defend Paul? A tough question because there’s no entirely satisfying answer. In Game 1, Hollins opted for Conley. This wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion.

Conley did an acceptable job of checking Paul during last year’s playoff series. Paul certainly created some quality shots, but he worked for just about everything and spent a fair amount of time in spots on the floor where he had no interest being.

But on Saturday, it wasn’t just that Paul got where he wanted to go, but that he got there in such little traffic. As Blake Griffin said, there was something extremely un-Grizzly about the Clippers' "getting what they wanted," and it can largely be attributed to the little resistance encountered by Paul.

The obvious alternative would be to stick Tony Allen on Paul, but that presents other risks, such as Chauncey Billups dragging Conley into the post. We saw Billups draw Conley on a switch in Game 1 and then promptly back Conley down before draining an easy midrange shot over him.

There are no good choices for guarding Paul, but that might be a risk the Grizzlies have to take. If nothing else, it’s putting your best defender where he’s most useful.

The Center
The league has only a handful of players through whom you can run your offense at the high post. Marc Gasol is one of them. On the possessions when Memphis’ offense is at its most fluid and attractive, chances are Gasol is stationed at the elbow.

The Grizzlies need Gasol to spend time at that spot and feed his teammates, but they also need him to generate some offense for himself, which is why Gasol’s ratio of low-post to high-post touches has been increasing recently. When Gasol is aggressive down on the block, he’s effective, and it’s not as if working down low strips him of his ability to be a playmaker. Instead of playing high-low with Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies can play block to block -- horizontal passes rather than vertical ones.

Having Gasol set up in the low post has its drawbacks. For one, it cramps Randolph a bit. The right block is where Randolph makes his living and serves his team best, and he needs a ribbon of empty space around him. But the Grizzlies do a nice job of staggering the minutes of their big men, which should provide Gasol with plenty of feeds closer to the basket.

The Spark
When the Clippers were ripping off 17 straight wins in December, the margins of victory could be credited to the performance of the second unit, which was decimating the league. Between Eric Bledsoe’s bedlam, Jamal Crawford’s marksmanship, Matt Barnes’ wiliness, Lamar Odom’s versatility and Ronny Turiaf’s … turiafity, the Clippers featured the most exciting and most productive bench in basketball. When excitement and productivity meet, you’re generally in a good place.

That’s the world the Clippers returned to in Game 1. “It felt like December” was something we heard a lot Saturday night and into Sunday, and nothing triggered that sense of deja vu more than the play of the bench.

The Grizzlies do chaos very well themselves, even if their complementary players aren't as talented. They also encountered this last April, so there’s no element of surprise. What they have to do now is neutralize to some degree the energy generated by the Clippers’ reinforcements.

Five takeaways from Lakers-Clippers

April, 7, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Lakers' leaky defense put out the welcome mat for Chris Paul and the Clippers.
LOS ANGELES -- As rivalry games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers go, Sunday’s tilt at Staples Center on the Clippers’ home court felt less charged. Chris Paul didn’t growl at Pau Gasol for patting his head. Metta World Peace wasn’t in uniform to torment any opponents. And Blake Griffin didn’t posterize any unwitting victims at the rim.

The teams were far more concerned with their respective agendas. For the Lakers, a win was necessary to maintain their hold on the No. 8 seed, while the Clippers are acutely aware they’re in danger of opening the postseason on the road. Those shadows eclipsed any animosity that might have previously existed over head-patting, post-dunk mugging, or bragging rights.

Five thoughts about the Clippers’ steady 109-95 win over the Lakers:
  • The Clippers shredded the Lakers’ defense. In a game that featured only 88 possessions (unofficially), the Clippers had an offensive efficiency rating of 123.9 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are such an easy defense to scramble. Why is Steve Blake cheating eight feet off Paul to offer a meek double-team on Griffin, who’s more than capable of kicking the pass out or spinning baseline away from Blake? What kind of defense worth its salt doesn’t pick up either of the opponent’s two wing players in transition? Why on earth is Antawn Jamison finding himself on the high side of a Paul-Griffin slip screen, essentially creating a five-on-four situation for the Clippers in the half court? And these are just a few examples from the Clippers’ run late in the first quarter. Optimists can talk all they want about how the Lakers will make noise in a potential first-round matchup with San Antonio, but the Spurs run the kind of offensive system that brutally punishes defensive cluelessness.
  • Kobe Bryant’s first and only breather came with 40 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter long after the Clippers tied a bow on their victory. Bryant is now averaging more than 46 minutes over the past four games, and he looks exhausted. He’s getting to the line at a fair rate, and averaging 11 assists per game over the stretch, but shooting just 37 percent from the floor. Following the game, Mike D’Antoni took a slew of questions about the load Bryant’s carrying, even as he maintained the management of Bryant’s minutes has been ceded to Bryant. “That’s a risk we’re running with Kobe,” D’Antoni said. “We’re playing with a little bit of fire, and we wouldn’t like to. But we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have to. … He wants to go. He wants to do it. He has to know his body and he will.” Is this denialism on the part of the D’Antoni and Bryant? The Lakers aren’t a deep team along the perimeter, but one look at Bryant down the stretch against Memphis on Friday -- when he looked as if he might just expire at the top of the floor while plotting the offense -- and again on Sunday, and it’s hard to fathom that the Lakers can’t find three or four minutes a half to spell the guy.
  • After some throat-clearing to begin the game, the Clippers refocused their offense around their two horses, Paul and Griffin. For Paul, it was child’s play. All afternoon, he swung right of a high pick from his big men and found space to launch uncontested mid-range jumpers. And that’s when the Lakers were lucky. When Howard was on the bench, Paul maneuvered his way to the rim with little resistance. For Griffin, nothing inspires like a few possessions matched up one-on-one with Jamison. When he caught the ball at the elbow, he didn’t deliberate and drove without hesitation. Griffin is well-served when he thinks dribble-drive as his first option in that situation, especially if he has space to get into his move. For Griffin, just because the jumper is “there,” doesn’t mean a drive isn’t. “Whenever those two guys are aggressive, it opens up the floor,” Jamal Crawford said. Crawford, Caron Butler, Willie Green and Matt Barnes -- the Clippers’ wing crew -- saw a bevy of open looks from the perimeter, many of them by way of Paul (12 assists) and Griffin (five dimes of his own).
  • The Clippers have had their own issues defensively of late, particularly against the pick-and-roll. They got somewhat of a pass on Sunday because Lakers don’t run a lot of ball-screens. The Lakers looked early into Dwight Howard, posting him up quickly if he found deep position. They also ran a bunch of stuff out of the horns formation, with dribble-handoffs and swing passes until Howard found a spot on the block, Gasol had a clean look in a good spot, or post-ups or freelance isolation for Bryant. The Clippers weren’t perfect. Howard bullied their big men, and defensive rotations were slow at times when they blitzed Bryant on the pick-and-roll. But things improved for the Clippers in the second half as the Lakers became more desperate and the Clippers used their speed to compound that desperation with chaos.
  • Griffin couldn’t find the net during warmups from long distance. Asked a minute or so after that warmup session whether players are less likely to look for shots they missed badly before the game, Griffin said no -- though he conceded other players might approach things differently. Sure enough, despite the cold snap during warmups from beyond the arc, Griffin attempted three 3-pointers for the first time this season, hitting one of them -- a dagger in the fourth quarter that essentially iced the game and induced a laugh from Griffin. “The thing I was laughing about was that I’d missed every single shot before that,” Griffin said (he was 0-for-7 from outside the paint before the 3). “Guys on the bench were telling me to keep shooting. ‘We want you to take that shot. We see you every day before practice. Keep shooting.’ And I was just like, ‘Man, you guys are crazy.’ So for it to go in, I was laughing.”

Chris Paul's New Orleans strip tease

March, 28, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
NEW ORLEANS -- First came the game jersey. Then the right wristband, followed by the left. With the fans still begging for more spoils, Chris Paul kicked off his shoes, one going into the scrum of fans crushing the barricade cordoning off the baseline section, the other to a kid in the corner section.

New Orleans is an undeniably permissive city, but Paul now wearing nothing more than an undershirt, red shorts and black socks. With little else to peel off, the strip tease was over. The point guard shuffled through the tunnel of his erstwhile home arena to savor the Los Angeles Clippers’ 105-91 win over the New Orleans Hornets.

Back in the Clippers’ locker room, not one of Paul’s teammates had hit the showers. Everyone was glued to the mounted flat screen, watching the Miami Heat try to preserve their 27-game winning streak against the Chicago Bulls. Aside from a few, ahem, gentlemen’s bets, no Clippers expressed a loyalty either way -- but when there’s a sexy event happening in your industry, it’s impossible not to be captivated.

“You’re not rooting for anyone,” Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. “It’s just exciting basketball.”

Paul ambled over to his locker at the far end of the room, where he was swarmed by local media. It’s been 15 months since the Hornets dealt their franchise player to Los Angeles, but there’s still mutual allegiance between Paul and New Orleans.

“Just being here, seeing all these familiar faces, I miss it,” Paul said. “No question about it. I miss the people here. My pastor was sitting on the baseline. My old chef, my barber, everybody. This is my family.”

The Clippers came into New Orleans still smarting from their previous night’s overtime loss in Dallas. The team didn’t play poorly against the Mavericks. The process was fairly clean, but the results simply weren’t there.

For most of the season, the Clippers have made defenses pay for the kind of aggressive traps Dallas deployed against Paul. The Clippers have plenty of releases in their offense to counter that kind of pressures -- a pass from Paul to a teammate at the top of the circle, who then quickly hits a shooter along the arc. But few of those open looks fell in Dallas.

That wasn’t the case Wednesday night, as the Clippers lit up the Hornets’ pack-the-paint defense from beyond the arc, draining 13 of 29 attempts from long range.

“Down the stretch tonight they tried to trap,” Paul said. “But tonight we were able to make them pay. Blake [Griffin] found Matt [Barnes] in the corner for the dagger.”

Process, meet result: Barnes had a similarly clean look on Tuesday night during a crucial late possession in overtime that could’ve tied the game, but it didn’t catch rim. On Wednesday, Barnes was able to hush a crowd in New Orleans that heckled him relentlessly.

Paul finished with 16 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals, but his floater during the final two minutes gave the Clippers a 10-point lead and effectively iced the game.

Griffin arrived in New Orleans a little down. Over his previous three games, Griffin recorded as many turnovers as field goals (10) and shot 31.3 percent from the floor. He’d been a reasonably decent facilitator from the high post, but Griffin needs some red meat in his on-court diet (not off, where he’s a stickler for healthy stuff), and the aggressiveness hadn’t been there.

On Wednesday, Griffin stormed back, undeterred by a skilled young defender in Anthony Davis and big man Ryan Anderson. Griffin said he was disappointed with a couple of easy misses, but his output was solid -- 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field and a 7-for-8 night from the stripe.

“I was much more aggressive,” Griffin said. “A lot of times I don’t want to force things. A lot of times, I want to be a facilitator in games. I need to pick and choose my areas a little bit better.”

At times, Griffin sees himself as a finesse player in a power body. It’s a delicate balance, but the power trumped the finesse for much of Wednesday night. When the Hornets showed high on a pick-and-roll in the first quarter, Griffin slipped to the basket without hesitation, catching the pass en route to finish strong. That possession ignited Griffin, who attacked the basket with a renewed commitment to bullyball.

On a night when both the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets lost, the Clippers moved back into the No. 3 slot in the Western Conference. And while a win over a lottery-bound team shouldn’t beget too much satisfaction, this is a Hornets team that dispatched both Memphis and Denver over the past week.

As the Heat’s winning streak was officially snapped while Griffin addressed the media, the power forward recalled the Clippers’ 17-game winning streak in December and the invincibility a team feels when it’s ripping off wins like that.

“In the middle of it, it just feels like you can’t lose,” Griffin said. “You have confidence that you can win any game you’re in.”

The Clippers head to Texas for a back-to-back with San Antonio and Houston, in search of a restored sense of fearlessness they carried with them less than three months ago.

The Clippers and the temptation of success

February, 8, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesEric Bledsoe and Chris Paul: The Clippers' embarrassment of riches at the point.

Momentum is a precarious thing in the NBA.

Five weeks ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were romping through their schedule, dispatching teams with brutal efficiency en route to a 28-8 record. The Chris Paul system was flourishing. Blake Griffin’s expanded offensive repertoire was blossoming, and his defense was coming along very nicely, thank you. The second unit was scaring the bejeezus out of the league, and the depth -- a rotation 11 deep with Grant Hill’s return -- allowed the team to send a wave of reinforcements at opportune times.

Then bodies started to fall. Paul bumped knees with J.J. Redick on Jan. 12, suffering a bone bruise. Griffin picked up the slack, carrying the load as the featured player in the Paul-less offense, but then tweaked his hamstring earlier this week. He has missed the Clippers’ past two games. Supersub Jamal Crawford is day-to-day with a sore shoulder. Since Paul’s collision with Redick, the Clippers are 7-8.

Despite the bumpy ride, the Clippers aren’t overly concerned. They feel the healthy version of their team can make a rightful claim as one of the league’s elite powers, and are confident they're a top-three seed in the West. When intact, the Clippers’ starting unit thrives. Their bench squad is gangbusters. All the permutations of their closing lineup -- whether it’s Lamar Odom or DeAndre Jordan at center, or whichever combination of Crawford, Matt Barnes and Caron Butler at the wings -- kill the competition. Well aware of this, the Clippers have exercised caution with their stars’ nicks and bruises, and now the returns of Paul, Chauncey Billups, Griffin and Crawford are imminent.

Once they're restored to full strength, the Clippers are presented with a dilemma:

Do they stand pat, faithful that the on-court efficiency and locker room chemistry is enough to put them on equal footing with San Antonio and Oklahoma City? Or does the tough competition from these seasoned rivals out West necessitate upgrading the roster if the right opportunities present themselves?

This is a tough proposition for the Clippers. If you’re Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, you can roll the dice with impunity because you have little to lose at this point. For an organization adrift, change, in and of itself, can take the pressure off a beleaguered front office and buy it some time. But the Clippers have a far more delicate balance to maintain. Every team wants to improve, but there are no guarantees that any deal, no matter how attractive it appears in the Trade Machine, will do that. The risk of upsetting a winning formula is real, but so is the risk of not capitalizing on a chance to improve.

The situation in Los Angeles contains a series of intriguing variables and conflicting agendas. For instance, if you’re in management -- a custodian of the future well-being of the franchise -- trading away a young player on a value deal isn’t something you do lightly. Adding savvy veterans is always nice, but at what burden to the spreadsheet and at what cost to the current chemistry?

But if you’re a coach or a star player whose contractual relationship with the Clippers expires on June 30, you have all the motivation in the world to push all-in for a chance to win the big prize in June. That’s especially true if you’re a head coach who values reliable vets with championship pedigrees more than younger players with raw, unrefined talent.

Specifically, Eric Bledsoe is the Clippers’ most compelling case study. If Chris Paul returns to Los Angeles next season on a long-term deal, Bledsoe is somewhat (not entirely) expendable. At the very least, he becomes less valuable to the Clippers than to a team in desperate need of a point guard of the future. The best way to ensure Paul returns is to win now, and if Bledsoe can fetch a piece that can aid that effort, as our Kevin Pelton has outlined, does it make sense to move the young point guard?

The counter-argument goes that Bledsoe is not only insurance for Paul, but he’s helping the Clippers now as the catalyst of the league’s most successful second unit and as the team’s best on-ball defender. Deal him at your own peril. Management understands this, which is why Bledsoe will more than likely be a Los Angeles Clipper in two weeks.

Jordan is a more complicated matter. He isn't likely to go anywhere, but his situation prompts some interesting questions. Vinny Del Negro puts a premium on experience, and he has been reluctant to place Jordan on the floor in big spots on a consistent basis, particularly now with Odom at his disposal. Moving Jordan could make sense for a couple of reasons. We can debate the validity of Del Negro’s skittishness with Jordan, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides. But the fact remains that the confidence from the staff isn’t there, so why not equip the roster with a big man whom they can trust, provided such a player is available at a reasonable price?

Then there’s the issue of Jordan’s contract, which he signed during the 2011 offseason -- another two years and $22.4 million after this season. This isn’t a horrible deal because big men with Jordan’s athleticism who can protect the rim are in short supply. But if they’re riding the pine during crunch time, that salary is a bit more burdensome. The Clippers could try to deal Jordan, much like what the Nuggets did when they developed buyer's remorse over Nene soon after signing him to a slightly overvalued deal. Truth be told, landing in a place where Jordan is handed the center spot without reservation might be a welcome change for the big man, who has worked diligently over the past few seasons to polish his game. Jordan has maintained a stiff upper lip, but can get frustrated with his role, even as he loves being part of the tight-knit group that exists with the Clippers.

All of which brings us back to that delicate balance for this organization enraptured by its current success after eons of futility. Do the Clippers stick with a program that has yielded the best results in the franchise’s history, or do they adopt the one move away plan, and act on the irresistible temptation to get over the hump, even if it comes at the expense of future success?

Killer Lineup: The Clips' tribe called bench

January, 9, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Los Angeles Clippers
Eric Bledsoe | Jamal Crawford | Matt Barnes | Ronny Turiaf | Lamar Odom
Minutes Played: 230
Offensive Rating: 102.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 87.2 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Like a 10-cylinder sports car -- not always the most practical vehicle, but an explosive one that can burn up the track at warp speed and is a whole lot of fun.

It didn't take long for Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to carve out large portions of the second and fourth quarters for this lineup composed entirely of reserves, and it immediately paid dividends. The second unit took on the nickname "A Tribe Called Bench," and it wasn’t long before you could hear “Scenario” during timeouts at Staples Center.

Tribe's overall offensive numbers aren't anything impressive. This unit actually scores 4.6 points fewer per 100 possessions than the Clippers as a whole, and much of that production comes in transition, where the lineup is racking up 27 fast-break points per 48 minutes.

This lineup was built to run. Bledsoe has lethal speed and can ignite an instant break off a live-ball turnover. Long after Crawford retires, we’ll still be talking about his handle, a weapon he uses to shred backpedaling defenders in transition. There isn’t a big man whose skill set is better equipped for the open court than Odom’s. A fast break is a dance number and Barnes understands the choreography and can run the floor as well as anyone in the game. Finally, Turiaf can throw an outlet pass, run and finish.

This group doesn’t excel in the half court, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since structure isn’t something that maximizes the strengths of either Bledsoe or Crawford. Bledsoe marshals a majority of half-court possessions, but a fair number of them originate with -- and terminate at -- Crawford. Regardless of who’s at the controls, most of the sets rely on penetration by either guard, off which Barnes, Odom, Turiaf or the other guard cuts baseline, dives from the weakside perimeter or flashes to the middle of the floor.

Bledsoe has improved considerably as a playmaker, but he’s still not fluent in the art of running an offense. (Apart from Andre Miller, Pablo Prigioni and a handful of others, few NBA backups are.) When Bledsoe has the ball against a set defense, the Clippers might run a double ball-screen for Bledsoe with Odom and Turiaf at the top of the floor, or an angle pick-and-roll with Odom.

Working with Barnes and Odom has been a quality education for Bledsoe, who in his first two seasons at the point rarely scanned the court for opportunities that might be materializing off the ball. Now he knows that Barnes is always reading the floor, finding angles and timing cuts that make him a smart target. Bledsoe has also learned that Odom can do plenty with the ball if Bledsoe can find him off the initial pick.

Crawford prefers to work alone on an island against his defender, and he gets plenty of opportunities to isolate, a role he’s thrived in with the Clippers. One-on-one basketball is a passion of Crawford’s and even though it doesn’t always make for the most efficient brand of offense, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Crawford whittle down defenders to little nubs off the dribble.

Odom has gradually worked his way into shape and can be found nightly in the high post slinging passes to cutters underneath the hoop and working the glass. He has logged the Clippers’ best overall on-off rating over the past 20 games. Barnes plays within himself as an offensive player and Turiaf does work in the trenches.

How it works defensively
The Clippers have jumped from 18th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to third overall this season -- and this unit is responsible for the largest share of that statistical improvement.

How ruthless is "A Tribe Called Bench"? They surrender only 87.2 points per 100 possessions. As a frame of reference, no other unit among the NBA’s Top 50 most commonly used lineups came in below 90.0. Opponents posted an effective field goal percentage of 41.6 percent (only one other unit in the Top 50 held the opposition below 45 percent), and that doesn’t even account for the fact 20 percent of opponents’ possessions end in turnovers.

The second unit isn’t running a system so much as a fire drill, and it all starts on the ball with Bledsoe, who barrels through or over every high pick. The ball rarely gets to where it wants to go because point guards simply can’t shake Bledsoe’s pressure. A simple entry pass into the high post becomes an adventure because Bledsoe can jump 20 feet in the air standing still. Bledsoe pushes every penetrating point guard toward the sideline, which allows the rest of the defense to tilt the floor.

This isn’t the coordinated encroachment you see in Boston or Chicago, where two backside defenders are explicitly responsible for zoning up the weak side of the floor. What the Clippers’ backups do is more improvisational -- and they can afford to be because rarely do teammates have to bail out Bledsoe after a blow-by, and this freedom gives them the luxury to cause trouble. In addition, Bledsoe's ball pressure means Odom and Turiaf don't have to front so aggressively in the post, which allows them more flexibility to make defensive reads, something both guys do well.

But just because the scheme isn’t scripted doesn’t mean the defense is sloppy. Barnes is careful, and you’ll rarely see him blitz an offensive player without first taking inventory of the floor. Once the ball pressure has disrupted the offense, Barnes will quickly survey the mess and figure out where he needs to go next and move there quickly. When guarding a big man on the weak side, Odom and Turiaf react similarly. Odom has a long leash to roam because the Clippers don’t lose much if he gets caught defending a guard after a blitz or has to cover for Bledsoe, who has decided to jump the passing lane.

What occurs as a result of these impromptu double-teams and relentless pressure is sheer chaos. You can see Bledsoe perform one of his best tricks when a point guard dumps the ball into a teammate at the elbow. As he clears to the weak side of the floor, the guard will then try to rub Bledsoe off the recipient of the pass. Rather than follow his man to the far corner, Bledsoe will instead stop to harass the guy with the ball, going for a strip or simply working with Turiaf or Odom to smother the player into submission.

Even when offenses recover from moments like these, the possession has essentially fallen apart. With the shot clock ticking down, the offense out of position and the defense smelling blood in the water, "A Tribe Called Bench" will double down and tighten the vise.

These guerrilla tactics don’t come without risk -- and it’s not unusual to see an offense whip the ball over a double-team to an open shooter -- but the collective speed, length and instincts of this unit make gambling worthwhile. Elite teams bet on their strengths, and most nights the members "A Tribe Called Bench" are going home winners.

Clippers clamp down on defense in fourth

January, 4, 2013
By Caroline Stedman, ESPN Stats & Info
(The Los Angeles Clippers host the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at 10:30 ET on ESPN.)

Over the past three seasons, Kobe Bryant has been at his best against the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s averaging 31.1 points per game against them and shooting 55 percent from the field. Against the rest of the league during that span, Bryant has scored 26.8 points and shot 44 percent.

Bryant had 40 points against the Clippers in the second game of the season and shot the ball well from deep: 4 of 6 from 15 feet and beyond.

Jamal Crawford’s defense
Has anyone noticed the impact that Jamal Crawford has had on the Clippers defense this season?

Opponents this season are shooting just over 40 percent when Crawford is on the floor (see chart).

Where Crawford has excelled the most, albeit in a limited sample, is defending the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll. Of the 31 such plays that Crawford has defended, ballhandlers have scored (on baskets or at the free throw line) only six times, and are shooting 2 for 18 from the field.

Clippers closeout defense
The Clippers rank in the top five in both opponents’ field goal percentage and points per game. One reason is they have ratcheted their play up a notch in the fourth quarter.

Opponents are shooting a league-low 38 percent and averaging a league-low 23 points against the Clippers in the fourth quarter. In their past eight home games, the Clippers have allowed an average of 18 fourth-quarter points. (The Golden State Warriors scored 33 points in the fourth quarter rout of the Clippers on Wednesday, but that’s been the exception rather than the norm.)

The Clippers are forcing a league-best 4.6 fourth-quarter turnovers.

The Clippers have lost back-to-back games following their 17-game win streak. Still, they lead the Lakers by nine games in the standings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the largest lead the Clippers have ever had over the Lakers entering a game against them since the Clippers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984.

How the Clippers are doing it with defense

January, 4, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Harry How/NBAE/Getty Images
The Clippers' once-mediocre defense now ranks among the NBA's best. What happened?

Defense is the NBA’s dark art, the great unknown, a phenomenon whose essence we can’t fully quantify with a simple measuring stick. We think we know good defense when we see it, and we can factor how many points a team surrenders per possession to confirm the eye test. But analyzing defense is still an exercise fraught with assumptions about coverage schemes, who was supposed to do what, and whether the process produced the intended results.

On the results side, we know one thing about the Los Angeles Clippers through 33 games -- only two defenses in the NBA have been better statistically, something not even those most optimistic about the Clippers’ prospects three months ago would’ve put good money on.

Those less bullish on the Clippers prior to the season often cited defense as the most obvious shortcoming. No matter how potent its offense, a team with a league-average defense usually doesn’t finish much higher than third or fourth in a deep conference, and there weren’t a lot of reasons to believe the Clippers’ defense would be much better than that. The Clippers finished 2011-12 with the league’s 18th most efficient defense, and didn’t add anyone to the roster in the offseason who could fairly be characterized as a stopper, 40-year-old Grant Hill the possible exception.

Acquiring solid defenders is probably the surest way to fortify a defense, but there are other means -- the implementation of a smart system and/or significant individual improvement from key players. This isn’t easy because systems need time before they’re perfected, just as younger guys with only a few NBA seasons under their belts need time to refine their instincts. For the Clippers to make a leap, they’d have to craft a more systematic defense that could be mastered quickly, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan made significant progress.

By and large, most of those variables have fallen in the Clippers’ favor. Much like their productive offense, the Clippers’ defense isn’t anything fancy. It doesn’t employ any defensive aces who can make life difficult for a decent-sized wing scorer. Griffin has improved a good deal, but can still get into a little trouble when he’s extended beyond the foul line. Same goes for Jordan, who is more disciplined in his movements and precise in his timing, but still hasn’t grasped every nuance.

So how have the Clippers taken a mediocre defense, swapped Randy Foye, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans for Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf and climbed 15 spots in the defensive rankings?


The second unit
The Clippers’ starting lineup has been adequate defensively, but much of the statistical improvement has been accumulated while the team’s second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes, Turiaf and Odom has been on the floor. In 230 minutes on the floor together, these five give up only 87.2 points per 100 possessions -- that’s tops among the 60 most used lineups in the NBA.

Pressure has been a bedrock principle of the defense this season, and when this unit is in the game, it looks positively Grizzly. Bledsoe is a relentless ball hawk. Consider this for a second: The Clippers' two point guards combine for eight steals per 48 minutes, with Bledsoe and Paul ranking one and two in the NBA in that category. The entire unit has license to trap the ball just about anywhere on the floor. Barnes and Odom make particularly smart reads defensively and know just when to release that pressure to relieve the back side of the defense.

For opposing reserves, it has been a nightmare. Every fifth possession ends in a turnover (the third-best rate among those 60 units that have logged the most minutes in the league), and if a shot does materialize it’s generally contested. All this despite the fact that Bledsoe roves a bit too freely and Crawford has been known to die on a screen away from the ball. Meanwhile, Turiaf is undersized, Barnes a bit foul-prone and Odom still off his fighting weight.


Let the big men use their speed
Neither Griffin nor Jordan has the experience of Kevin Garnett, the instincts of Joakim Noah or the presence of Tyson Chandler. But they’re faster than all those guys, and this season Griffin and Jordan have been empowered to unleash that speed more aggressively.

Last season Griffin and Jordan spent much of their time on defense trying to hold their ground in a flat scheme. This year, Vinny Del Negro and assistant coach Bob Ociepka are asking more of Griffin and Jordan -- and they’re getting more. Griffin and Jordan are blitzing selectively (e.g. step-up screens, last third of the shot clock) and are frequently showing high on ball screens to force the ball as far away from the paint as possible. Because they’re finding themselves higher up in the half court than last season, they have farther to travel when it’s time to recover. But that’s OK because both Griffin and Jordan can fly, so long as they know where they’re going, they're more than capable of getting back.

In short, the Clippers have decided this season to double down on their athleticism, even if it means absorbing a few mistakes here and there. Are Griffin and Jordan fluent yet? No, but they’re increasingly proficient and that footspeed affords them a little more time than most big men. They have a coaching staff who trusts them to take aggressive measures to defend, then use that speed to mitigate any potential mistakes.


Talk, Talk
Elite teams often characterize the seamlessness of their defense as being “on a string.” A movement by one defender instantaneously triggers another defender to rotate into his place, and so on. The fibers that make up the Clippers’ string are getting stronger, but the cord isn’t completely taut, at least not yet.

In the meantime, the Clippers maintain order by communicating. You can hear Jordan and Griffin confidently calling out screens so that Chris Paul doesn’t plow into an opposing big man. On high ball screens, Jordan has gotten especially good at letting Paul know when he’s dropping back into the paint, so Paul can push the ball handler down the sideline. That’s crucial because Paul can’t let a guy get low unless there’s a plan to cut off the ball.

When Barnes wants to join Bledsoe in pinning a guard along the sideline, he’ll call out to Odom to take momentary responsibility for the man left open. And when Paul finds himself away from the ball on the weakside, he’s constantly barking directions to teammates to close the back door or cut off an obvious pass to the middle.


We knew the Clippers would be an efficient offensive unit -- Paul virtually guarantees that. We knew they'd be deep, and would have the flexibility as a team to bang with the brawlers, run with the gazelles, protect the basketball, scramble defenses with Paul's probing, exploit double-teams with Griffin on the block, and wreak havoc with a second unit that can pressure opponents and move the ball.

Yet we had no inkling the Clippers would post these kinds of defensive numbers this deep into the season. We're beyond the point (40 percent of the regular season in the books) at which we can talk about the sustainability of that success. That's not to say there won't be retrograde, early 2012-ish defensive outings like Wednesday night in Oakland when the Warriors shredded the Clippers on the perimeter, in transition, on pick-and-pops for David Lee. We'll learn a lot more about the Clippers on Saturday night when they get another crack at Golden State and make their adjustments.

But if the Clippers have figured out the defensive piece, if they've truly accomplished what elite defenses do -- maximize their individual strengths and mitigate those weaknesses -- and if they continue to post overall offensive and defensive ratings that rank in the NBA's top five overall, it's mathematically impossible to dismiss them as legitimate competition to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and anyone else in the West who stakes a claim.

Wednesday Bullets

December, 26, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • From Pablo S. Torre's ESPN The Magazine feature on Kyrie Irving, what every eager young basketball player should have in the drawers of his nightstand: pork rinds and Sour Patch Kids.
  • At BallerBall, an expanded visual of Russell Westbrook's legs at a 105-degree angle as he launched Oklahoma City's final field goal attempt -- the most controversial shot of Christmas.
  • Royce Young of Daily Thunder tackles the prickly question of Kendrick Perkins' usefulness and wonders why Kevin Martin and not Thabo Sefolosha was on the floor for a crucial defensive possession in the game's closing seconds that resulted in an easy bucket for Chris Bosh.
  • A video roundup of the notable Christmas Day commercial spots featuring big-name NBA players.
  • How many minutes should an NBA coach play a raw, young player? That's one of the most contentious debates in the NBA, and it's one that can drive a wedge between a head coach and management, a fan base and its team, young guys and oldsters in a locker room. Andre Drummond has put up solid numbers per minute in Detroit, but he's not seeing all that many minutes.
  • Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting implores Raymond Felton, who has only seven functional fingers, to take a night off: "At last, we may have found the injury threshold at which Raymond achieves self awareness. Yes, Ray. Take the night off. Take a couple if you have to. I don't know why having sore, lifeless hands emboldens Felton to attempt MORE feats of dexterity (now attempting 19 shots per game in December after 14.2 per game in November), but it's really not helping matters."
  • Andrew Han of ClipperBlog factored the decision-making judgment of Caron Butler: "Midway through the third quarter, on a secondary break, Caron Butler pulled up for a wide-open 3-pointer. Open as far as the eye can see. So open, in fact, that when he elevated, Iguodala (who was 10 feet away) simply turned around to seek out the impending rebound. But Butler didn’t shoot it. He dished it to an equally wide-open Willie Green for a corner-3, who promptly drained it. I mention it because I wondered why Butler passed on his shot; he’s been an effective 3-point shooter this season. And so I checked the stats: Caron Butler: 37.8% 3PT% from above-the-break-3. Willie Green: 48.3% 3PT% from the corner-3. They were similarly wide open, but Butler understood that the corner-3 is a higher percentage shot, and a much higher one for Willie Green. You play the hand you’re dealt. And while, to others, it seems like you’re on a hot streak, it’s all about counting the odds."
  • Jamal Crawford with a move Billy Crystal calls "Shabbat Shalom" ... even on a Tuesday night.
  • Keith Smart cast his lot with DeMarcus Cousins last season, a gambit that's become a lot more dicey for the Kings' head coach in his second season with the organization.
  • Warriors rookie Draymond Green can't shoot, lacks a natural position even by the more fluid definitions of today's NBA and is putting up some ugly numbers. So how come the Warriors are inordinately better when he's on the floor?
  • Something to contemplate as the Hornets get ready for the return of Eric Gordon -- he's a sturdy, efficient defender.
  • The Washington Wizards don't do much of anything right, but as Jordan Khan of Bullets Forever illustrates, they sort of know how to press.
  • Kendall Marshall celebrates the miracle of touchpads.

Life inside the Clippers' winning streak

December, 26, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Los Angeles Clippers are riding a 14-game winning streak and moving fast.

LOS ANGELES -- Players will tell you that the coolest thing about a hot streak is the inertia. It’s a total ride. As pro athletes, they’re contractually obligated to play down the importance of The Streak as a numeric event. They’ll say The Streak doesn’t mean anything in the larger scheme of a season, but they’ll also acknowledge that living inside The Streak feels different.

After the Clippers’ 11th straight win last Wednesday, Paul described The Streak as inhabiting a world in which the food tastes better, the music sounds better and you sleep more restfully. To Paul’s point, riding The Streak is a transporting experience.

“It does feel like we’re moving somewhere,” Jamal Crawford said.

“It’s good for us,” Matt Barnes said. “We just want to continue to move in the right direction.”

The Streak is like being zipped on a high-speed bullet train, gliding across a landscape at exhilarating speeds from a place you’ve been to a place you want to go. The Clippers have been eager to make such a trip -- from the league’s upper-middle class to the ranks of the elite.

After an 8-6 start that included some real thuds, the Clippers have now traveled to the top of the NBA standings after notching their league-high 14th consecutive win Tuesday, a 112-100 thumping of the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. With Oklahoma City’s loss at Miami earlier in the day, the Clippers now boast the NBA’s best record at 22-6.

“It’s a mindset of coming out from the beginning and jumping on them defensively, bringing that intensity,” Blake Griffin said. “When we’re at our best, our starters have a great first quarter, then our bench comes in and elevates that. Then our starters come back in and it’s just a tag team.”

Want the crib notes for what has occurred over these past 14 games for the Clippers? Take a peek at the second-quarter play-by-play Tuesday night for a composite. The Clippers scored on 20 of their 27 possessions in the period, including their last 11 trips down the floor.

“I didn’t even realize that,” Griffin said.

“I did not know that,” Paul said simultaneously. “I would’ve never known that unless you said that. That’s crazy.”

Over the first three minutes of that crazy second quarter, the Clippers’ second team, one of the league’s most efficient units (plus-20.4 points per 100 possessions), forced three Denver turnovers and ended another possession with a block. When Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan assumed their starting roles to close the quarter, the Clippers’ trapeze act began.

Paul leapt in the air, twirled, then threw a pass across his body to a trailing Barnes, who finished with a slam. Then Griffin pointed in the air with his index finger, the universal signal in Clipper Nación for “feed me at the rim.” Barnes obliged with a pretty lob from just inside midcourt. Then Paul and Griffin teamed up for a balletic pick-and-roll, off which Paul set up Griffin with a pinpoint bounce pass. Griffin scooped it up, skied through the lane and jammed it home. Then the Clippers closed the half when, with only 6.3 seconds left on the clock, they pushed the ball upcourt, where Crawford saw Jordan flash the universal signal. Lob and jam.

“They’re probably the biggest and most athletic team -- combination of size and athleticism -- in basketball,” Nuggets coach George Karl said prior to the game. “They love to dunk. We like to dunk, but they might love to dunk.”

It hasn’t been all pyrotechnics for the Clippers over the course of The Streak. A team that had its fair share of mental lapses last season is playing an intelligent brand of basketball.

Take a routine possession in the third quarter with the Clippers on a secondary break. The ball found its way to Caron Butler, who had an open 3-pointer, but the veteran saw teammate Willie Green in the right corner all alone. So Butler gladly passed up a 37.8 percent shot (his mark on 3-pointers above the break) for a 48.3 percent one (Green’s accuracy on corner-3s).

“We talked about it in the huddle,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Caron made a really good, unselfish play and that’s winning basketball, making that extra play.”

After the game, Paul and Griffin characteristically downplayed the streak. Paul alluded to the 22-game winning streak of the 2007-08 Houston Rockets, a team that ultimately bowed out in the first round of the postseason after Yao Ming suffered an injury. Paul also cited his New Orleans Hornets team from that same season.

“We went 56-26,” Paul said. “I’ll never forget that season. I felt like we should’ve won the championship that season, and I remember right before the playoffs started, our team met and we said, ‘We are an unbelievable team. We can’t see [another] team beating us four out of seven games.’”

Those Hornets ultimately bowed out in the conference semifinals in a hard-fought and gut-wrenching seven-game series to San Antonio.

“That was my third year in the league and I was like, ‘I’ll be in this position every year. I’ll have a chance to win every year,’” Paul said. “But no, you’re not on teams like that every year. Trades happen. Injuries happen. That’s why you have to savor these moments and not let them just blow away. So I’m thankful and grateful to be on a team like I am this year.”

Clippers streaking to the top of the West

December, 21, 2012
By Ernest Tolden, ESPN Stats & Information

Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty ImageBlake Griffin and the Clippers have had a lot to celebrate this year.
Showtime has returned to Los Angeles. This time, it’s in the form of Clipper red, royal blue and white, and not the traditional purple and gold.

The Clippers have emerged this season as top Western Conference contenders and one of the best teams in the NBA.

Los Angeles has won its last 11 games, matching the franchise's longest win streak, originally set by the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves.

At 19-6, the Clippers are off to their best 25-game start in franchise history. Last year, they finished the regular season 40-26, recording the highest single-season win percentage in franchise history at .606.

This season they have even higher expectations, as they’ve shown improvements in several key areas, propelling them into the NBA’s elite.

"Defense Wins Championships" is the motto the Clippers have adopted this season. They ranked 18th in defensive efficiency last season, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions. This season Los Angeles ranks fourth, allowing 97.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Clippers’ pressure defense has been outstanding this year, forcing an NBA-high 17.5 turnovers per game.

They have also been able to turn their opponents’ miscues into scoring opportunities better than any team in the league.

They average an NBA-high 22 points off turnovers, including a season-high 31 points off turnovers in their 93-77 win Wednesday over the New Orleans Hornets.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Clippers have picked up where they left off last season. They remain one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Clippers are finding easy ways to score. They rank third in the league in field goal percentage, likely due to where on the court their shots are coming from.

The Clippers thrive in the paint, where 47.3 percent of their total points have been scored. Only the Denver Nuggets score a higher percentage of their points in that area at 53.8 percent.

The high-flying frontcourt duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan has fueled the team’s success inside.

Both players rank in the top five in dunks for the third consecutive season. In fact, Griffin’s 472 dunks over the last three seasons are the most in the NBA in that span.

The Clippers’ biggest improvement has been their increased depth. They rank second in the NBA in bench points per game, a significant jump for a unit that ranked 26th in scoring last season.

The Clippers’ reserves have played a key role in the team’s recent surge, outscoring their opponents’ bench in nine of the last 10 games overall.

The biggest spark off the bench is Jamal Crawford, who leads all reserves in scoring at 16.6 points per game. Despite not starting, he has been the team’s primary closer this season. Crawford averages 7.2 points in the fourth quarter, trailing only Kobe Bryant in that category this season.

The Clippers will host the Kings on Friday at the Staples Center. With a win, they would match the Thunder for the longest win streak this season.

Friday Bullets

December, 7, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

The Clippers restore order

December, 2, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- It didn’t matter that the Los Angeles Clippers’ 116-81 blowout victory came against a Sacramento Kings team a whose rotation is a head-scratcher, whose best passer is 6-foot-6 backup center, and whose energy and resolve were left on the team bus.

“We needed a win like that,” Blake Griffin said. “To be what I thought was pretty good from start to finish, it’s good for our confidence.”

After running out to an 8-2 start that included wins over Miami, San Antonio (home and away), Memphis and the Lakers, the Clippers have staggered over the past 10 days. They dropped four straight games before recovering on Wednesday night with a sloppy win over Minnesota at Staples Center.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/GettyBlake Griffin: Flying high.

On Saturday night, the Clippers found their footing. There were no transcendent individual exploits or a continuation of last season’s juicy crosstalk between Griffin and Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins. This was merely the Clippers performing surgery on a weak patient.

“[The Clippers] were getting anything they wanted on the offensive end,” Kings forward Jason Thompson said. “They had a good lead in the first quarter. We got it to within five, and then the next thing you know they got it back up to double-digits and we could never really come back after that.”

The Clippers shot 54.7 percent, including a 12-for-24 night from beyond the 3-point arc, but what was particularly heartening were the improvements made in areas where the team had been lagging:

Sleepwalking against lousy teams
The Clippers' only hiccups over their first 10 games came in home losses to Cleveland and Golden State (in retrospect, not such a black eye) at Staples Center. After dropping the final three games of their road trip during Thanksgiving week, the Clippers had a get-well game scheduled against the New Orleans Hornets, but were shellacked by the Southwest Division’s cellar dwellers. The Kings are a unique brand of bad, though, a team ranked in the bottom third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, rebounding percentage, assist rate and true shooting percentage. The Clippers wouldn’t be caught off-guard on this night.

Protecting the Ball
Coming into Saturday, the Clippers ranked 28th out of 30 teams in turnover rate, far and away the oddest development of their young season. They finished 3rd in the league last season, and Chris Paul teams almost always reside among the league leaders. On Saturday, the Clippers coughed up only five possessions, their lowest total of the season. “I thought we did a good job of not turning the ball over a lot,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.

Foul Machine
The Clippers have been scrapping hard on defense and refining their rotations, but they’ve still had trouble containing penetration. The result has been a steady procession to the foul line for their opponents. Only the Kings have fielded a worse opponent free throw rate (that’s free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted). On Saturday, the Clippers racked up a relatively modest 15 personal fouls, resulting in only 18 free throw attempts for Sacramento.

The bench revitalized
It remains to be seen if The Tribe Called Bench handle will stick for the Clippers’ reserves, but after teetering during the Clippers’ recent bumpy road, the second unit fueled the Clippers on Saturday. All six bench players finished 50 percent or better from the field for a collective shooting percentage of 57.1 percent. Jamal Crawford led the Clippers with 17 points, while Eric Bledsoe added 14, and Matt Barnes 12.

The Clippers had moderate success on the glass in the win, another sore point for a team that finished seventh in the league in rebounding rate in 2011-12, but is sitting a hair below league average through 16 games this season.

DeAndre Jordan, who Chris Paul insists is the team’s bellwether, was also active offensively, scoring 13 points.

“D.J. is a problem in the post if he catches the ball deep in the lane,” Paul said. “There are only a few guys in the league who can catch the ball in the lane, jump straight up in the air and turn and dunk on you.”

The Clippers also entertained their sellout crowd with the usual sequence of acrobatics. The most impressive physical feat of the night actually came on an attempted -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- dunk in the first quarter when Bledsoe fed Griffin a lob on a break. Griffin was fouled by Aaron Brooks while soaring for the one-handed throwdown from the left side of the rim. The foul call came late, and the intervening silence between contact and whistle almost sent Griffin into anaphylactic shock.

“It would’ve been a real nice make,” Paul said. “The craziest part was that it almost wasn’t [called] a foul. Thank goodness [game official] Eric [Lewis] called it right there. You can’t blame the official over there, Scott [Twardoski] because I think he got caught looking, like, ‘Woooow!’ [Brooks] took Blake’s arm off and he forgot to call the foul.

“It happens.”

How the Clippers changed their mood

November, 21, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Los Angeles Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhatever the Clippers call it this season, it's a lot more fun than Lob City.

Blake Griffin didn’t shoot, and Chris Paul was ticked off.

Paul is in the business of finding open shots for teammates. It’s a vocation he loves and performs better in than anyone alive, and he even delivered a manifesto on the subject on Saturday after the Clippers’ win over Chicago.

“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul said. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me, and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake, and once that continues, we become that [much] more dangerous.”

Early in the third quarter, Paul got a step on Kirk Hinrich going left. Joakim Noah was attending to Griffin on the right side of the floor, but when Noah saw Paul attack, he moved toward the paint and away from Griffin, who was now left alone about 18 feet from the basket.

Paul's main objective was achieved, as the entire Bulls defense thought he was trying to score. Leveraging that attention, Paul slung a pass across his body to Griffin, now wide open.

But instead of catching and shooting, Griffin cradled the ball for a second, almost inviting Noah back into his airspace. Noah closed on Griffin and now it was too late for Griffin to launch that face-up jumper he’s been working on tirelessly. Griffin’s only recourse was to shuttle the ball back to Paul, who was barking and gesticulating at Griffin like someone in a hurry behind a blue-hair in the left-turn lane.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Shoot it!’” Paul said. “He can do it and we need him to do it because once he develops that, which he’s already done and keeps gaining more and more confidence, he becomes unguardable.”

Griffin flashed a smile when those comments were relayed to him a few minutes later.

“I had to hit a couple so he’d get off my back,” Griffin said, tailing off with a chuckle.

Teammates don’t reveal moments like these with such ease without an established trust. When Paul arrived in December 2011, he and Griffin knew each other only by reputation. Today, as the 8-2 Clippers head into a showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul and Griffin know each other as people.

After each home game, the pair strides into the Los Angeles Kings’ locker room, which is set up with a playoff-style podium. Paul is usually the first to arrive. He’ll take questions for about four minutes before Griffin slips into the room, sits down, cracks open a can of Red Bull that’s sitting before him, but which his lips will never touch. The two will share the podium for a couple of minutes before Paul exits, leaving Griffin to finish.

The two-man show is both a stylistic and substantive departure from last season. Last winter, Griffin would glower in the corner of the locker room after games and grunt platitudes to a swell of reporters. Across the way, Paul would perform his we're-not-satisfied shtick, win or lose. He was never expressly surly, but he was definitely guarded.

Maybe it’s the roomier and more orderly digs of the new setup, or maybe it’s the fact that the Clippers are beating the holy hell out of teams like San Antonio, Miami, Chicago and the Lakers, or maybe it's just the passage of time, but Paul and Griffin are far more accessible and revealing than last season -- both on and off the court.

That wry, playful persona you see from Griffin when he’s tooling around in a KIA with his red track suit? He’s brought it to the arena and the practice facility. He doesn't punt basketballs across the practice court and storm off when he loses a free throw contest to DeAndre Jordan. Paul and Chauncey Billups don’t have to tell him to chill when he seethes after a miscue in a scrimmage.

Paul has also softened. When he rides guys in practice, he’s less likely than last season to elicit a defensive response, according to teammates. When the moment invites it, they might even give him a little crap, a gentle acknowledgment that Paul’s perfectionism is a little pathological but greatly appreciated. It’s a group that knows Paul well, and that familiarity has spawned an environment that’s one part frat house, one part creative firm.

And now Clipperland feels like a fun workplace where you imagine a very successful team to reside -- and that's playing out on the court, where the Clippers are plowing through their schedule.

Coming into the season, this evolution wasn't a foregone conclusion. The 2011-12 Clippers were a divisive force in the NBA. Lob City should've made the Clippers darlings of the league, but the team became inordinately unlikable to a legion of NBA fans. The Clippers hadn't earned a thing, but carried themselves as scowling, whining, flopping prima donnas. Over the course of the season, their popularity dropped through the floor.

Four weeks into the new season and the Clippers have undergone a quiet, sneaky rebranding. The optics surrounding the team are entirely different. They've become the likable, up-tempo team we imagined they'd be. For a team infamous in 2011-12 for its tactlessness, the Clippers refashioned themselves without people talking about it, which makes the feat even cooler.

Paul’s inside-out dribble still propels the offense, but the ball pops around the court. Clippers games have pace, and there's a discernible rhythm on both ends of the floor.

Flanked by his vets and a few young guys who defer to his savvy, Paul has relaxed. He’ll never be a jokester, but his leadership is now more peppy than austere, and it has infused the Clippers’ on-court product with some whimsy.

Griffin’s antics have been shelved for the most part, but not the exuberance. He’s out there to perfect that midrange jumper, to wall off the paint from a speedy point guard, to play an honest-to-goodness brand of defense and, yes, to catch hanging lobs from his guards at unreasonable heights. This season, Griffin isn't about humiliating opponents, but rather elevating himself -- and he’s done it without losing style points.

Jordan, the Clippers’ wide-grinned center who’s carrying a hefty contract, has found his game. He’s still a top-three dunk machine, but the game is rounding out, and when he’s playing well, there isn't a more infectious guy on the team. When Jordan subs out for Ryan Hollins these days at Staples Center, he’s leaving the floor to a standing O.

Fun teams feature cult heroes. Jamal Crawford has been hosting that party for a decade and has brought his wares to Los Angeles. He’s leading the Clippers in scoring and the Staples Center court is littered with tibias, fibulas and whatever else gets fractured by Crawford’s crossover dribble.

Then there’s Eric Bledsoe, a 6-foot mass of bedlam who checks in for Paul nightly and proceeds to drop a lighted match on the hardwood. On a recent night at Staples Center, you could overhear the official scorer, an all-business professional whose job consists of enumerating the game’s basic data points -- “Foul 32,” “Miss 11,” “Steal 12,” “Turnover 15” -- break character to utter in an equally matter-of-fact tone, “Bledsoe is a freak.” NBA assistant coaches, social media platforms and Bledsoe’s teammates unanimously agree.

We know that basketball games are won because talent and certain empirical truths prevail. But can intangibles such as optics, camaraderie and fun translate into wins? When you have players who understand expectations and enjoy their work environment, can those conditions enable a team to achieve the upper range of its potential?

Right now, the Clippers are a case study. We know they’re talented, and Paul’s command of the game makes them an efficient team that will win far more games than they’ll lose. They've gone from unwatchable to captivating, the League Pass special that fans signed up for last season.

Ankle breakage, inside-out dribbles, alley-oops, brimming confidence, a new-found jumper, freaky lilliputians who block shots and strip balls with impunity -- all of it is inspiring. Now we’ll find out if it’s sustainable.