Basketball

Clippers’ Championship Hopes Hanging on by a Thread

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The Clippers’ championship hopes are hanging on by a thread and quickly deteriorating. An exhilarating Round One series in the 2020 Orlando Bubble between the Mavericks and Clippers promised another exciting matchup in Round One of the 2021 playoffs.

No one expected this.

Two games into a seven-game series, the Dallas Mavericks already have a commanding 2-0 lead over the afore-labeled “Title Hopeful” Clippers of LA. The worst part for Clippers fans? Both wins came on LAC’s home court, meaning the Clippers now have to win four of the next five games, three of which will be in front of sold-out crowds in Dallas.

Clippers’ Championship Hopes: What Went Well

There aren’t many positives to build upon if you’re a fan of the Clippers, but there is one glaring bright spot. His name is Kawhi Leonard. The 2-time Finals MVP played 41 minutes en route to scoring 41 points, grabbing 6 rebounds, dishing 4 assists, and nabbing 2 steals in the Clippers’ 127-121 loss to Luka Doncic and the Mavs. Leonard shot 66.7% from the field, 57.1% from behind the arc, and 90% from the free-throw line to help him put up one of the all-time great playoff performances in a loss.

Another positive came from his running mate, Paul George. The 6’9 swingman couldn’t find the touch from deep, hitting only one of his seven 3-point attempts, but he still managed to score 28 points on 54.5% shooting overall and 3-3 from the free-throw line. George added 12 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 steal to his stat line as well.

If George and Leonard want to keep the Clipper’s championship hopes alive, these are the types of performances needed out of them.

Clippers Championship Hopes: What Needs to Change

Role Players

Unfortunately, the superstar duo was about the only bright spot for the Clippers. It’s not that other players were bad, but none of them were particularly good for most of the game either. Marcus Morris started the game 0-3 from distance while the Clippers dug themselves a hole to dig out of, though he did hit his last two attempts from deep. Hopefully, he can build upon this despite fouling out late in the game.

Patrick Beverley shot 1-4 from the field. Reggie Jackson made only five of his 12 attempts from the field. Nicolas Batum shot 60% but saw the court for less than 20 minutes for reasons unbeknownst to me.

Something seems to still be wrong with Serge Ibaka, otherwise, I have no excuse for him playing only five minutes in a playoff game with implications as big as this one. His absence was only compounded, unfortunately, by his counter-part Ivica Zubac looking entirely lost during his 22 minutes on the court, forcing the Clippers to play a variety of small ball lineups including running Morris, Batum, and even Kawhi Leonard at center for stretches.

Rotation

I had a lot of blind faith in Ty Lue coming into this season and playoffs, as I’m sure many Clippers fans did. Unfortunately, he lost a lot of trust from a lot of fans in Game 2 when he failed to make meaningful adjustments until too late in the game.

For some reason, we did not see Terance Mann in Game 1 at all despite his clear improvement throughout the back half of the season. Lue opted to give Mann a chance late in Game 2 after the Mavs already had a decent lead and things were starting to look bleak for the Clippers. Naturally, he came in and provided an instant spark by running the floor, providing another defensive guard, and creating second-chance opportunities. It’s not entirely clear why it took so long to see Mann, but for the sake of the Clippers’ championship hopes, fans should want to see more of Mann moving forward.

After a subpar performance in Game 1, Reggie Jackson was once again the first player off the bench for the Clippers. Don’t hear what I’m not saying, Jackson surprised me and proved me wrong time and time again this season, but if he’s not making his shots consistently, his defense becomes a liability. Of course, he shot 42% from the field in Game 2, including 38% from distance, but his lack of defensive ability was still evident.

Jackson’s size and weakness were only amplified when Ty Lue ran out multiple 3-guard lineups including a stretch with Jackson, Beverley, and Rajon Rondo all on the court at the same time. Later in the game, he ran a similar lineup with Mann replacing Beverley, though Mann is a slightly bigger and longer guard so I understand using this lineup for short stints when Luka’s not on the court to give one of the two stars a rest.

The problem I have with the ultra-small lineups is they don’t utilize one of our biggest strengths – length and versatility on the wings. Instead of running lineups of three players under 6’3, I’d rather see Coach Lue include more wings like Morris and Batum to give us more options defensively. When more than half of our players on the court are point guards, both Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis can feast and get whatever they want with only one switch, which brings me to my next point.

Defensive Scheme

I’m not a basketball coach. I understand that. Coach Lue has been in situations like this and clearly knows more than I do or else I’d be making the big bucks. However, it’s clear to see that whatever he’s doing isn’t working.

The Clippers are consistently switching every single screen in an attempt to limit Luka’s driving and playmaking abilities, but it’s resulting in quite the opposite. Too many times Luka walks his way into a soft screen that leaves him facing Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley, or Ivica Zubac in an ISO situation. Even when he’s being defended by one of the more defensive-oriented wings, all it takes is one off-ball screen to get Porzingis posted up on a smaller guard where he can just turn around and drop it in.

Though it hasn’t been working well, I don’t hate the defensive scheme. If the Clippers want to switch and make Luka attack mismatches every single possession, fine. Make him score 50+ to beat us. That’s fine. The problem arises when the Clippers don’t commit to switching or don’t communicate quickly enough on the fly to stay with the other role players that also happen to be on fire like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber. If the Clippers are going to switch everything, then switch everything. If they’re going to fight through screens, then fight through screens.

It appears as though they have not fully committed to either strategy through the course of a full game yet, resulting in miscommunication and wide-open looks for the Mavs’ shooters not named Luka Doncic. Allowing the guys on the court to decide the game plan on the fly leaves too much room for error and miscommunication. Pick a defensive strategy and see it through. At this point, you either throw everything you have at Luka and hope his shooters can’t keep hitting 50%+ of their shots, or you stay at home and make Luka beat you by himself. I’m fine with either, but the coaches and players have to pick one or the other and hold true to it.

Clippers’ Championship Hopes are Still Alive… Barely

Thankfully for Clipper fans, there is still time. Not much time and most of it will be spent in Dallas, but there’s still time to see some of these adjustments. On the bright side, 27 teams in NBA history have climbed out of an 0-2 deficit in a playoff series. Unfortunately, 399 teams could not overcome the same deficit. That’s a 6.3% success rate. There is, however, one positive note on this statistic: Kawhi Leonard was a part of one of those teams in 2019 with the Raptors.

The Clippers have the talent, depth, and ability to beat anyone, but if they don’t put it together starting in Game 3, it’s going to be a long offseason for all of us.

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