The Los Angeles Clippers have shown glimpses that they might be a championship contender.
L.A.’s focus will surely be tested throughout the remainder of the playoffs given the insensitive racial remarks that TMZ Sports has reportedly attached to Clips owner Donald Sterling.
It would appear that head coach Doc Rivers is the best leader to guide the team through these trying times. Thus, the Clippers might be able to shrug it off and use it as motivation.
Some might quickly dismiss the notion after the Clippers were routed, 118-97, in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Golden State Warriors, but a blowout isn’t necessarily indicative of any major flaw.
After all, the Clippers did vanquish the Warriors by 40 points in Game 3. The series may be tied, but the Clippers have shown they are resilient.
Los Angeles lost the playoff opener because Blake Griffin was saddled with foul trouble. He played a mere 19 minutes and wasn't on the floor to close out the contest. And yet, the Clippers bounced back by winning consecutive contests.
L.A. may have stumbled in Game 4, but the mission was to reclaim home-court advantage, and the Clippers succeeded on that front. Perhaps they lacked the necessary urgency to win back to back road games, but that's hardly a sign of weakness.
There have been signs that L.A. could potentially still be playing in June, and we will gladly have a look at them.
A Killer Offense
The Clippers are expertly blending all of their pieces together and have a top-three offense during the playoffs.
All of it starts with Griffin. He has thoroughly dismantled the Warriors on the low block with a series of devastating post moves. Time and time again, Griffin has manufactured high-percentage looks and it’s left Golden State dumbfounded.
In addition, he has avoided double-teams by stepping out on the perimeter to beat defenders off the dribble. In case that wasn’t terrorizing enough, Griffin is also stretching defenses out by making mid-range jumpers.
The combination of it all has made him an incredibly potent scorer. Rivers shared as much with CSN Bay Area’s Monte Poole:
"He's been just great. The bank shot that he's added to his game, facing the basket has just taken him to different level because it's very difficult now to guard him. If you get up on him, he goes around you. If you back off of him, he can use the glass."
One might be tempted to think that Griffin’s success is a product of Andrew Bogut’s absence. Bogut, Golden State’s best interior defender, is sidelined indefinitely because of a fractured rib.
Consequently, Griffin has predominantly been matched up with David Lee and Draymond Green, neither of whom is in the same class as Bogut when to comes to defending the interior.
However, Griffin averaged 25 points on 53.2 percent shooting in four regular-season outings against the Dubs, according to NBA.com, and Bogut was present for all of the games. Those numbers closely mirror what Griffin has done in the series.
Indeed, he is pouring in 26 points on 60.9 percent shooting. Griffin’s array of moves, coupled with his efficiency, has made everything else click on offense.
J.J. Redick, a lethal long-range shooter, is getting a multitude of open looks because opponents are afraid to help off Griffin. In turn, Redick’s shooting has created an impossible predicament for the Warriors.
When the Warriors have remained glued to Redick, a helpless defender has unsuccessfully guarded Griffin, and Chris Paul has gotten driving lanes. Redick’s importance is not lost on the rest of the league as Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher explains:
"Redick, meanwhile, is regarded by several league scouts as the piece that allows the Clippers offense to function at a championship-contending level, thanks not only to his catch-and-shoot deadliness but his basketball IQ and serviceable defense."
The tandem of Redick and Griffin gives a playmaker like Paul exactly what he wants: options.
What’s more, when defenses decide to converge on Griffin and honor Redick, Paul is presented with another set of possibilities: He can turn the corner in the pick-and-roll, attack his defender in isolations or quickly go to DeAndre Jordan for a Lob City connection. Watch as Jordan finishes during Game 3:
The way Los Angeles is operating on offense should give every playoff team reason to pause. The Clippers were also the best offensive team at the conclusion of the 82-game schedule despite the fact Redick missed 47 games due to a back injury.
With Redick back in tow, the Clippers have actually been better during the playoffs. They are scoring 0.5 points per 100 possessions more, which is the difference between the second and fourth spots.
Every time the Warriors have taken something away from Los Angeles, Paul and Co. have countered with another wrinkle.
For instance, Jamal Crawford loves scoring off the dribble, and he gets an abundance of opportunities when the opposition is more concerned with the likes of Paul and Griffin.
The same is true for Danny Granger who gives the Clippers a different dimension. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), 44.6 percent of his regular-season field goals with L.A. came in spot-up opportunities and post-ups.
Los Angeles has surrounded its stars with solid complementary players, and the result is what appears to be an unstoppable offense. That alone could take the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals.
Getting to the title round and possibly winning it might require a little more, and Los Angeles has shown signs it might have “it.”
Good Enough Defense
L.A.’s ability to get stops will ultimately determine if the team can compete for a title, and it appears as though the Clippers have enough to get it done.
Paul gives the Clippers ferocity on defense that takes teams out of their plays. He strategically applies pressure on ball-handlers, which can result in mistakes from the opponent. The Clippers are forcing 20.3 turnovers in their series with the Warriors, per NBA.com.
Paul might ramp up the intensity once his man crosses half court, force the opposing point guard away from the screen in the pick-and-roll or aggressively trap the ball after a ball screen.
Opponents always know Paul is coming; they simply don’t know when. Watch him literally take the ball away from Stephen Curry in Game 4:
The tricky thing about varying degrees of defensive pressure is that it results in lapses.
DeAndre Jordan and Griffin do not always rotate with perfect synergy on defense, which means they oftentimes need the perimeter players to help them out. Paul’s sporadic pressure pushes offenses into being perhaps one or two seconds off schedule.
That gives the starting interior players enough time to blow up plays at the point of attack. This is part of the reason that Doc Rivers has chosen to systematically trap Curry in every pick-and-roll when a big man has been setting the ball screen.
It’s prompted the Warriors to make some fairly predictable plays where Jordan has been able to erase or alter shots in the paint. Golden State finally adjusted in Game 4 by instilling more motion into the offense.
The team had Curry come off the ball to run pick-and-rolls, and after getting rid of the ball, he kept moving around to spots where his teammates could hit him or others for open looks. Watch Curry get loose in the video below, and notice that Griffin never recovers back to Draymond Green:
Curry dropped 33 points on Los Angeles in Game 4. Paul was quick to point the finger at himself to ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss: "It's all on me. I let him get loose early."
The Clippers finished the regular season ranked among the league’s top-10 defenses, but they are nowhere near elite. Their breakdowns serve as evidence of that.
It is nonetheless still a good defense, and that might be enough given how potent their offense is.
There are only a handful of teams that force a multitude of defensive rotations and that can consistently capitalize on the breakdowns with their combination of finishers and shooters: the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat.
Considering that only a few clubs can spread out Los Angeles and systematically exploit its weaknesses, it gives credence to the fact that the Clippers are among a small group of teams with a shot at the title.
All stats accurate as of April 27, 2014.