After a dispiriting opening-night loss to the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed to have righted the ship in a big way, knocking off a pair of Western Conference contenders with a 126-115 win over Golden State and a 137-118 win over Houston.
Sure, they would end this week with a tough three-game road trip, including games in Miami and Houston, but they had won three in a row, their offense looked unstoppable and they seemed like a good bet to win at least two of the three games.
Instead, the Clippers went oh-for-Florida with losses to Orlando and Miami on back-to-back nights. As opponents, the Magic and Heat have little in common, but in both games the Clippers demonstrated a disturbing lack of consistency.
Versus Miami: Death of the Fast Break
The Clippers looked strong in the first half, sprinting out to a 56-52 lead on the strength of their famous fast break. The halftime numbers were everything L.A. could have hoped for: 17 fast-break points, 15 free throws, 52.6 percent team field-goal percentage.
During the TNT halftime show, however, analyst Kenny Smith was dismissive of the Clippers' success. Smith called Los Angeles "a great regular-season team" and suggested that its fast-break offense wouldn't work in the playoffs.
That kind of analysis is sure to infuriate Clippers fans, but it's valid.
Miami's focus on shutting down the Clippers' fast break paid immediate dividends. The Clippers managed only two fast-break points after halftime.
Confined to the half court, L.A.'s offense sputtered in the second half, with only six free throws and a 45.7 percent team field-goal percentage. Chris Paul in particular regressed—after dishing out nine first-half assists, he was limited to three assists (against three turnovers) the rest of the game.
Coach Doc Rivers confirmed the stagnation and its effects during his postgame press conference, via ESPN:
You can see in the third quarter they slowed the game down and we slowed it down with them... And I thought that really hurt us. We had a 6-minute stretch where we could have stretched the game. Instead we started walking it up, slowing everything down. They're too good with a set defense. We allowed them to set their defense. That's when all the turnovers came.
Add all that up, and the once-potent Clippers offense managed just 41 points in the second half, allowing Miami to take the lead and hold on for the 102-97 win.
Versus Orlando: Dominated Early, Shaky Late
While losing to Miami on the road is nothing to be ashamed of, their performance against a young Orlando Magic team was truly embarrassing.
The Clippers came out unprepared to play, and the Magic took advantage, jumping out to a 19-point lead early in the third quarter.
Los Angeles demonstrated its firepower by going on an enormous third-quarter run, turning a 19-point deficit into a six-point lead. At that point, it seemed likely that the Clippers would run away with the game against an inferior opponent. But they floundered in the fourth, scoring only 16 points as the Magic took control of the game en route to a 98-90 win.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn had Nikola Vucevic and the other Orlando big men focused on taking away the rim and leaving Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan open from mid-range. Basically, they sagged off the Clippers bigs—particularly Griffin—and dared them to hit open jumpers.
The plan worked like a charm. Griffin did lead the Clippers with 23 points, but he needed 20 shots to get them. Jordan was worse, shooting 3-of-10 from the field. Meanwhile, Vucevic completely outplayed the more heralded Los Angeles frontcourt to the tune of 30 points and 21 rebounds.
Doc River Needs to Get to Work
Stretches like these last two games are exactly why the Clippers brought in an experienced, title-winning coach in Doc Rivers. Despite having the game's best point guard in Chris Paul, Los Angeles often gets caught playing beneath its abilities.
If the Clippers want to be a contender, they need to find consistency in their defense, half-court offense and frontcourt. In Griffin and Jordan, they already have tremendous potential to have a strong, defensive-minded frontcourt, similar to the teams Rivers coached in his glory years with the Boston Celtics.
Rivers has most of the raw material to build a contender in L.A. If he can use the first few weeks of the season to improve his team, he should be able to develop a smarter, more mature team down the road.