Los Angeles Clippers' Inconsistency Puts Breakout Season in the Balance

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 10, 2014

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, left, talks with guard Darren Collison in the first half of Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Friday, May 9, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Adaptability is key to NBA postseason survival, but one gets the sense the Los Angeles Clippers' identity involuntarily changes.

If these hot and cold extremes are in fact controllable, that's even more worrisome. Intentionally or not, this team's sensational season is now left hanging in the balance, plagued by an erratic effort and unpredictable execution.

L.A. packs an explosive offensive punch, yet sometimes seems too lazy to light its own fuse. It fashions itself as a stonewall defense but creates its own cracks as discipline and energy give way to recklessness, lethargy and irksome infighting.

The Clippers have the tangibles needed for a championship run: top-shelf talent, difference-making depth and a coaching mind sharp enough to draw blood. The eye test can see as much, and the numbers reach the same conclusion: first in offensive efficiency and seventh at the opposite side during the regular season.

Balance, not defense, wins championships in this league. Just ask the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. Their two-way marks last season? First in offensive efficiency and seventh at the opposite side.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Name the metric, and Doc Rivers' team grades out at a championship level.

"Unlike most of the other realistic title contenders, the Clippers don't have an easily exploitable weakness on either end of the court," Bleacher Report's Bryan Toporek wrote.

The Clippers rebound (51.6 rebound percentage, sixth), share the basketball (62.0 assist percentage, fifth), force mistakes (17.2 opponent's turnover rate, first) and contest shots (44.3 field-goal percentage against, tied for ninth). They do what it takes to win games, something they did at a franchise-record-setting rate this season (57-25).

On the surface, it's all good—well, other than the fact they find themselves trailing 2-1 in their best-of-seven series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. To understand the reasons why the Clippers find themselves in such a predicament, one must go deeper than the surface.

There is no obvious separation between these two Western Conference powers. After 144 minutes of action, the scoring in this series is tied at 335.

Each side has a pair of top-10 NBA talents, and all four have left elite imprints on this series. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combined for 55 points, 20 assists, 10 rebounds, four steals and three blocks Friday night. Not to be outdone, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went for 59 points, 19 assists and 16 rebounds.

Subtleties are hard to find in the midst of superstar explosions such as these, but look hard enough and one will spot what has the Thunder two wins away from a Western Conference Finals berth—and the Clippers two losses from elimination.

One could start on the glass, a place where positioning helps, but nothing means more than heart and desire.

"Rebounding is really just about going and getting it," Griffin said, via ESPN.com's J.A. Adande, following the Clippers' 118-112 Game 3 loss.

Hopefully, it's not as simple as he makes it sounds. Otherwise, one cannot help but to question the fire that burns (or, perhaps, doesn't burn) inside of the Clippers. Not when L.A. has lost the battle of the boards in this series 143-100.

Maybe there's a logical explanation for the numbers. One that doesn't involve the Clippers simply not caring enough to seize the opportunity in front of them.

Like, if the Thunder were outshooting them by a ridiculous rate, for instance. Defensive rebounds are inherently easier grabs than offensive boards, after all. The top offensive rebounding team in the league this season, the Denver Nuggets, managed just a 31.4 offensive-rebounding percentage.

Oklahoma City (50.6 percent shooting) has, in fact, had more success than Los Angeles (48.1) from the field in this series. Not nearly enough to explain such a wide margin on the glass, though. Over these three games, the Thunder have just 10 fewer misses than the Clippers (124 to 134).

It's not as if the Thunder have superior individual rebounders, either. Based on per-game averages from the regular season, the Clippers have the top two glass-eaters in this series, with Griffin (9.5) and DeAndre Jordan (13.6). That tandem has combined for just 43 boards over the first three games, 14.3 a night.

May 7, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) and Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) react to play against the OKlahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game two of the second round of the 2014 N

Are weak rebounding numbers a clear sign of inconsistent energy? Of course not.

However, they're not the only indicator that the Clippers have given less than 100 percent in this series.

Maybe it's simply a matter of fatigue. With Westbrook at the helm, the youthful Thunder can stay full-throttle for a full 48 minutes. The Clippers like to run—they rank second in fast-break scoring with 18.3 points per game, via TeamRankings.com—but they seem uninterested in holding game-long track meets:

It makes sense to slow the pace, considering L.A. has an advantage in decision-making at the point guard spot, but doing so has exposed a defense that looks a lot worse than advertised.

The Thunder have carved up the Clippers for 50-plus percent shooting in each of the last two games, both of which were Oklahoma City wins. L.A.'s inability to stop the bleeding surfaced at the worst possible time Friday night, as the Thunder's 32-point fourth-quarter burst turned a four-point deficit after three into a six-point win.

"They got everything," Rivers said, via Beth Harris of The Associated Press. "They got 3s, layups, key second shots. Down the stretch, they made every big play. We had shots, too, and they didn't go in. We put way too much pressure on our offense because our defense wasn't working."

Every team has breakdowns, but the Clippers' have a tendency to linger.

Missed rotations have hurt, but not nearly as much as the finger-pointing that often follows. Great teams move on from their mistakes, knowing that problems won't be solved with mid-game bickering.

In that sense, it may be premature to categorize the Clippers as great. As Rivers noted, via ESPNLos Angeles.com's Arash Markazi, his team doomed itself by failing to leave plays in the past:

The only thing I didn't like, I thought they were frustrated when they scored, which is good. You want them to be. But you got to keep playing. I thought there was some residual. One guy knows that the defense broke down because there was somebody else. Instead of just keeping playing, you felt like you had to tell them. I'm saying, 'OK, let's tell them later, but let's just keep playing.'

That can't be the only time Rivers has delivered that direction: to just keep playing.

Not with his players constantly removing themselves from the action to throw some verbal jabs at the officiating crews:

Championship contenders aren't derailed by external forces. Although the Clippers have been forced to endure more outside noise than any team should have to handle, they do themselves no favors by waging these in-game wars with teammates and officials.

L.A. needs to channel that aggression toward the task at hand.

This is not the first time this group has shifted seamlessly between dominance and frustration. There was no rhyme or reason to the way this team opened these playoffs: four-point loss, 40-point win, two-point win, 21-point loss.

Maybe this is all part of a learning process. This is just the fifth playoff series for the Paul-Griffin tandem, seven fewer than Durant and Westbrook have played together.

"You grow from experience," Durant said, via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated. "Having been here before, it's helped us all out."

The Clippers, though, aren't supposed to need that help.

Mar 4, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) and head coach Doc Rivers against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Clippers defeated the Suns 104-96. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rivers shouldn't have to tell these players—although he assuredly has been all season long—that each possession matters at this point. The stage might be somewhat new to guys such as Griffin and Jordan (both of which are making their third postseason appearance, by the way), but this is a veteran-heavy rotation that should know exactly what's at stake.

The Clippers have the pieces needed to make a title run, yet they could easily be in a three-game hole had Paul, a career 35.7 percent three-point shooter, not buried eight triples in the series opener.

As it stands, they've backed themselves into a corner, and they've yet to display the focus, precision and determination needed to get out of this position.

There's still time to figure this out, but the clock is loudly ticking. If the Clippers snooze through a few more of Rivers' alarms, they may find their road to relevance closed for construction until October.


Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.