Chris Paul's shoulder injury comes at a critical time for the Los Angeles Clippers. As the team begins to get comfortable in coach Doc Rivers' offense, its point guard and floor general goes down. This is particularly devastating for any team, as the primary ball-handler has the strongest command and understanding of the offense.
For the Clippers, much of their offense runs through the point guard due to Paul's prowess as one of the league's best players. But with Paul out, Rivers has tweaked their usage of certain plays to funnel the offense through its other weapons.
One luxury is the presence of J.J. Redick, a master at running off screens to gain an edge on his defender. Coupled with an everlasting motor, Redick is able to outwork his opponent, tiring him out through the course of the game.
Rivers takes advantage of this by constantly running Redick off screens, whether as a dummy action, play initiation or for a shot. Because he lacks the offensive creativity to generate his own looks, Redick is often reliant on this style of play to get himself going. And without Paul, this type of structured offense is what the Clippers must rely on even more.
In Paul, Rivers had a point guard to whom he could hand over the keys. He could trust him to break plays when a lane opened, or simply to attack on his own without over-isolating or relying on simple pick-and-rolls.
Darren Collison, the current starting point guard, has not earned this trust—nor has he ever enjoyed this leeway throughout his career simply because he isn't good enough offensively. This is where the structure comes into play, with Collison serving more as a play initiator than as a focal point.
Let's take a look at this elbow action the Clippers ran early in the first quarter against the Lakers. Collison's only direct interaction with the play is in its initiation: entering the ball to DeAndre Jordan on the elbow.
Once this happens, he makes an inside cut towards the hoop before cutting to the opposite side. Jared Dudley then sets a back screen for Blake Griffin.
It's unlikely that Jordan would ever be able to squeeze that backdoor look into Griffin, but the Clippers use it as a dummy to draw attention away from the main action: a long curl leading to a dribble handoff between Jordan and Redick.
Most teams tend to switch back screens in order to avoid alley-oops. Here, the Lakers miscommunicate on the switch, leaving Griffin open underneath the hoop. Redick, a solid passer in his own right, finds Griffin, who gets fouled.
This is what excellent execution of a structured offense can do: It lessens the burden of creating points, making screens and cutting the facilitator as opposed to a ball-handler breaking down his defender.
Here's another play the Clippers ran a few times during this game: a simple double-stagger screen for Redick, who starts beneath the rim and pops to the wing off two screens.
If Redick's defender, Wes Johnson, tries to step into the passing lane by going over the screen from Jordan or between Jordan and his defender (known as shooting the gap), it's Redick's job to fade to the corner. This way, Jordan can simply change his angle for a new screen, opening up a shot for Redick.
In this case, Johnson locks and trails, meaning he follows Redick's direct path. This forces Redick to curl, and is a tactic used by teams to prevent an immediate shot off the catch. The Lakers want Redick to drive, which is not his strength.
This is what happens, and Redick is forced to kick the ball to Griffin. The Lakers are able to rotate and recover.
It's in this moment that Paul is his most valuable. With the play defeated by the Lakers, most teams will go to an end-of-clock isolation or pick-and-roll. Paul is extremely skilled at creating something out of nothing, and even broken possessions are never completely lost.
But with Collison, his pick-and-roll only leads to a long Griffin two-pointer, which he misses.
What the Clippers really want to do, both with Paul on and off the floor, is run. Jordan and Griffin do an excellent job beating opposing bigs down the floor, and the average NBA team is significantly more efficient in transition situations than the half-court.
This is a relatively obvious fact, as the defense is either in a state of confusion or weakened by smaller numbers. Here, the Lakers somewhat get back. But due to miscommunication, none of the four Lakers involved in their transition defense pick up Griffin.
This gives Collison an easy lob pass—Griffin's excellent hands actually bail out a poor pass—which Griffin finishes.
Paul's absence isn't the biggest deal in the world; he'll be back relatively soon and will be able to slide back into the lineup seamlessly. While the extra losses that could pile up might hurt the Clippers' standing in a strong Western Conference—even a game or two could be the difference between a third seed and sixth seed—Los Angeles avoided disaster.
And with Rivers captaining the ship, his penchant for leading disciplined offenses will help stabilize the team.
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