The focus of the Clippers’ fourth-quarter collapse against the Spurs on Monday was their inability to execute late, but their offensive miscues overshadowed a bigger issue on the other end of the floor.
The Clippers’ perimeter defense has been the team’s Achilles heel all season, and Kawhi Leonard’s monster performance — 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, five costly offensive rebounds — exposed the shortcoming as much as possible.
With Jamal Crawford continuing to start in place of the slumping Matt Barnes, Crawford was tasked with defending Leonard for a majority of the first and third quarters, and some during crunch-time. The results were disastrous, and ultimately dropped the Clips to a disappointing 4-3 record.
It’s not a coincidence that in a game with such an obvious mismatch, the Spurs uncharacteristically deserted their motion-based offense and decided to run a slew of post-ups and isolations for Leonard.
"We ran more plays for [Leonard] tonight than I ever have in his career," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
To compensate for Crawford’s defense, the Clippers often sent DeAndre Jordan to double or heavily help towards Leonard, which triggered a series of defensive rotations. Blake Griffin would then leave his man — either Matt Bonner or Boris Diaw, both capable 3-point shooters — to defend Tim Duncan near the rim, leaving Chris Paul and J.J. Redick to play zone against the three remaining Spurs, who were spread across the 3-point arc.
As Jordan collapsed on him, Leonard could quickly shoot, dump a pass inside to a flashing Duncan, or swing the ball to Tony Parker at the top of the key. From there, Parker could penetrate and score, kick out to a shooter or reset the offense. The options were endless.
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Luckily for the Clippers, the Spurs couldn’t convert, shooting just 9 of 36 on uncontested shots (25 percent). No Clippers opponent had shot under 39.0 percent on uncontested shots this season heading into Monday, and most hovered around 50 percent.
The Spurs simply missed a ton of good, open looks. If just a few of those go down, the score could’ve been ugly.
When asked if the loss showed the downside of playing Redick and Crawford so many minutes together, Clippers coach Doc Rivers responded curtly: "Yeah."
It isn’t exactly a revelation to claim that the Clippers’ wing defense is poor, of course, but the problem could be worse than expected. The Clips’ defense has generally been a mess to start the season, and they have yet to put together an impressive defensive half, let alone a full game.
"We don’t have that one guy," Rivers said. "I’m not going to tell Matt, ‘I need you to go stop LeBron.’ I’m not going to tell Chris that or J.J. or Jamal or Reggie [Bullock]. It’s going to have to be a team effort, and we knew that coming into the season."
As a result, opposing wings — particularly small forwards — have had field days against the Clippers this season. Besides Leonard, Utah’s Gordon Hayward scored 27 points, Sacramento’s Rudy Gay dropped 25 and, most notably, Oklahoma City’s Perry Jones broke out with 32.
"I don’t worry about it because we don’t have it," Rivers said of the team’s perimeter defense. "It’s not anything I’m going to lose sleep over. It would be great. I would be a lot smarter coaching-wise if we had something like that, but we don’t. We have what we have."
What the Clippers have now is a bottom-10 defense, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions (21st overall). That is a steep drop off from last season’s seventh-ranked defense, which allowed just 102.1 points per 100 possessions.
Wings are just blowing by Redick, Crawford and Barnes, getting into the paint and wreaking havoc. Teams are shooting 36.1 percent on 3s against the Clips, which ranks 21st league-wide. Even worse, opponents are shooting 60.5 percent at the rim, good for worst in the NBA by a decent margin.
So, how can they can fix this issue?
Well, with a veteran-laden roster and few moveable assets, there aren’t many avenues by which the Clippers can improve. The ideal scenario would be Reggie Bullock accelerating his development and stepping into the starting role, and either Jared Cunningham or C.J. Wilcox emerging as a reliable fifth wing.
Another option could be picking up a veteran free agent after he is bought out near the trade deadline, but those players usually have mixed track records. The most drastic option is making a trade, but only Crawford and Bullock have real trade value, and it’s unclear what they could net in return.
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For now, patience and internal improvement are the two likely solutions.
The sample size is extremely small, but the Clips also need to monitor how the starters play with Crawford. Their offense has been better with Barnes (their offensive efficiency jumped from 95.8 to 106.1), but their defense has been worse (down from 111.1 to 118.5). It might be worth it just to insert Barnes back into the lineup, even if the upgrade is minimal.
The defense should improve as the season progresses — the Clips similarly struggled with their defense over the first two months last season — as continuity is a key ingredient to any good defense. The question remains, however, if the Clippers have the personnel to ever properly execute Rivers and assistant coach Lawrence Frank’s intricate scheme.