Clippers' League-Worst Defense Ready to Turn the Corner?

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Clippers' League-Worst Defense Ready to Turn the Corner?

"Defense wins championships."

It's perhaps the most cliched cliche in the history of sports cliches, but it is true to a certain extent. No, the best defenses don't always win championships—a team needs some semblance of balance—but the worst defenses never win championships.

The term "30th-ranked defense NBA champion" isn't even worth a Google search; it has never happened, and it's not likely to happen in the near future. That should come as bad news to the Los Angeles Clippers, who came into tonight dead-last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, surrendering 110.6 points per 100 possessions. 

If the Clippers fancy themselves a title contender—and we know that they do—they're going to have to make significant strides defensively. And tonight's game against the Houston Rockets was certainly a step in the right direction, as L.A. turned up the defensive intensity late en route to a 107-94 win. 

 

A Tale of Two Halves

In their last two games, the Clippers witnessed firsthand how even the best offenses can be shut down for at least one half of a basketball game. L.A.'s first-ranked offense ran into a brick wall to open Wednesday's game in Orlando, scoring a mere 42 points in the first half against the Magic. On Thursday, the Miami Heat pulled a similar trick on the Clippers in the second half, holding them to just 41 points in the final 24 minutes.

Tonight, however, it was the Clippers who turned the tables on the Rockets and their fifth-ranked offense. Houston started the game in fine form, sprinting out to a 55-46 halftime lead. And, yet again, the Clippers D was the butt of several jokes on Twitter.

But the L.A. clamped down on defense in the third and fourth quarters, holding Houston to a paltry 39 points after halftime.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The second-half Clipper defense played especially well on Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin, who had combined for 22 points by the break. After intermission, Lin and Howard were held to five points and committed five turnovers—quite a drop-off. 

Coming into tonight, the Clippers were ranked 29th in the league in opponent field-goal percentage and 24th in opponent three-point percentage. But one look at tonight's opponent shooting percentage tells you everything you need to know about the improvement the Clippers made down the stretch.

  Opp. FG% Opp. 3P%

Before Tonight

   .491    .395
First Half    .524    .313
Second Half    .361    .200

 

Seven Minutes

At 5:02 in the third quarter, Chandler Parsons hit a layup—his second layup in less than a minute—to put Houston up by 11. The Rockets would not score another point until 10:12 in the fourth quarter, a stretch of nearly seven minutes.

The Clippers used that seven-minute stretch to turn an 11-point deficit into a seven-point lead and never looked back.

So what did the Clippers do differently on defense in those seven minutes?

For starters, they got a little lucky. The Rockets bricked a couple open threes, and Francisco Garcia blew a wide-open layup in transition. But the Clippers did wisely exploit a Houston weakness—Jeremy Lin's shaky ball-handling—and turn it into three turnovers.

Most importantly, the Clippers simply stopped fouling. Through its first six games, the Los Angeles defense allowed 186 free-throw attempts from opponents, the worst mark in the NBA. And in the other 41 minutes of tonight's game, they put the Rockets on the line for 25 free throws. But in that seven-minute stretch, the Clippers allowed only two foul shots to Omer Asik, who missed them both.

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

For a team like the Clippers, a high foul total is often the product of lazy defense: players simply swiping at the ball instead of staying in front of their man. But in that seven-minute stretch, they showed a more mature approach to defense, and it helped swing the game in their favor.

 

Something to Build On

Of course, we're talking about halves and seven-minute stretches here; not exactly the stuff of a top-10 defense. But Clippers fans can certainly hope their team uses tonight's late-game effort as a building block.

Head coach Doc Rivers believes the team can build on stretches of good defense, as he expressed to nba.com before the game:

We’ve actually played some defense for a couple of quarters in some games...So, it will come together.

 

Rivers has only coached this team for a handful of games, and his players have struggled so far in the face of sky-high expectations. But Rivers is one of the league's best coaches, and he can use nights like this as a teaching tool, to mold his Clippers into the kind of tough, defensive-minded squad that can compete for a championship

 

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