The Clippers stand at 4-7 and they’ve had several disheartening losses that they could’ve/should’ve won. It sucks, but the truth is that both the team and the coach keep taking steps in the right direction. In the first of the last three games, the Clippers choked in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma City, highlighted by Chris Kaman driving under the basket so he had nothing available, then jumping in the air and passing it to Kevin Ollie. It was painful. Kaman got a lot of crap for that in the blogosphere, but c’mon he’s been the one reliable player all season. While his tendency to panic with the game on the line isn’t too inspiring, the truth is that he personally could’ve won that game earlier. He missed several easy bunnies that he always makes (we’re talking like B-Diddy drawing Chris’ man then handing it off to Kaman for a two-foot shot at the rim).
However, afterward we then learned that Kaman was sick as a dog during that game. I say fine then, he’ll normally make those. And literally there were at least 3 of those (if not more), and had we been up 6+ points it never would’ve gotten to that last possession. How then did the team grow in this game? Rasual Butler took many less shots. Kaman took the most, followed by Baron, as it should be with this group, and then Butler & Thornton took the same amount of shots which sounds right. Yes, Rasual still shot a staggeringly awful 20%, but he didn’t instantly oblige with a shot every time Kaman was doubled. Maybe Rasual came to this realization on his own, maybe it was the coaching staff. Either way, a big step forward. Another nice wrinkle by Dunleavy was that he tried playing Baron & Telfair together, realizing that he was having trouble getting production from that swingman spot.
The next game was against Toronto. As has been the team’s method of operations, the Clips came out strong & looked like they were gonna pull away. Then they choked in the fourth quarter. What were the positives? One, Kaman returned to his normal dominating self, proving that he’s for real this season & that the previous game was an exception. Two, Dunleavy played Steve Novak for key minutes! It made a huge difference in keeping the court spaced out. Unfortunately, Novak didn’t play down the stretch, thus enabling the Raptors to swarm Kaman in the fourth quarter like every team has been doing. Rasual played less than he’s been playing (which is good considering how much he’s been stinking up the joint), but alas he was still put back in at the end.
While Novak did help with spacing, both he and the team still need to figure out how to best use him. There was a point when Novak passed the ball down low to Kaman, then proceeded to cut towards Kaman to leave that side open. It’s a standard cut that every team does to create space for the big man down low (& if the cutter’s man doubles onto the big then the cutter gets a pass from the big for a wide-open easy layup). This would’ve left Baron Davis at the top of the key and put Novak with the other two Clips on the weak side. Normally a great move, but it’d mean that the easiest kick-out for Kaman would be to Baron rather than Novak who’s a much better shooter. Or if the double came from the weak-side, well it’d be a much tougher pass for Kaman to throw the ball cross court and it’d be much more crowded. Optimally, Novak stays on that open side and if his guy goes to help, then boom Novak’s wide open for a high-percentage three. If his guy doesn’t go to help, then Kaman has more room to operate. Or if someone comes from the weak side there are now less people over there which’d make it easier for Kaman to make the pass.
Another positive thing from that game was that Al Thornton looked comfortable for the first time this season. People have ragged on Thornton, but the guy’s not only been injured, but he also has been busting his butt to try and do the things that the coaching staff has asked. I strongly believe that besides the injury, the reason he’s sucked so much is that he’s overthinking everything. He’s been so desperate to do the “right thing” that he hasn’t had a chance to get into the swing of things. Rather than having to split time with Rasual, lately he’s been able to play many minutes without fear of getting yanked for mistakes. The thing with Al is that while he has much more athleticism than Rasual, he hasn’t always been great with the team’s defensive principles, nor has he been able to determine what’s a good or bad shot. However, with Rasual being unable to determine that either, Dunleavy’s been giving Thornton more of a chance. As much as I hate to give Dun kudos, I applaud him for seeing that & nurturing Al back to a mentally healthy place, sports-wise.
The third (&final game) over the last few days thankfully resulted in a win. It was a rematch against the Thunder, but this time in Oklahoma City. On the telecast, announcers Ralph Lawler & Mike Smith pointed out that even though it’s usually easier to win at home, probably the Clippers got a boost because they were away. Why? The boo-birds. This game, like most of the previous ones, featured the Clippers start strong & look like they might pull away early. Yet again the other team caught up & it came down to the last quarter. The last several games have been in LA, and the fans have rightly been frustrated each time the Clippers let the other team back in the game. And they start booing. The team feels enough pressure within themselves that they’re choking, but when they feel the fans are disappointed by them it puts even more pressure on them. And makes the arena less hospitable. Personally, I never fully get booing yer home team. Actually, I get it if you boo with purpose (ie. chant “Fire Dunleavy” or my hometown’s old “Fire Isaiah”), because then you’re telling the team what you want them to do. And the voices of fans should be heard. But to just boo ‘cuz the team’s sucking? To me it’s like those people who when they’re in gridlock just keep honking the horn. It doesn’t help anything — everyone already knows the cars are stuck. However if there’s just one specific car that’s in your way, then by all means honk away to let ’em know they better move their buttocks. But I digress. Big-time.
So was the only difference that the team wasn’t home? Does that mean we should request all our games take place away from LA? No, the lack of boo-birds was just what helped the team pull through in the end. Other improvements? Rasual Butler only played 23 minutes. Novak got some minutes again, but the bulk of those minutes went to Kareem Rush. Rush was great, but we can’t assume he’ll regularly be this good (for instance, he blocked two shots which I doubt’ll ever happen again). The key thing is that Dunleavy is now actually paying attention to how players are performing rather than just sticking with what he has in mind. He’s finally noticed that Rasual’s hoisting up shots & he won’t play Rasual as long as that keeps up.
Another nice thing was that the team did a screen-and-roll with Baron & Kaman at the end rather than just try to force it down low to Kaman as they’ve unsuccessfully struggled to do in the fourth. One of those resulted in Baron giving it to Kaman for a wide-open layup. The next time Baron’s defender went under the screen so the same thing couldn’t happen, allowing Baron to shoot the game-winning 3. That said, I’d rather a slightly higher percentage shot, but I know it’s hard ‘cuz Baron loves to go for the dagger. And that shot certainly dagged.
The other big improvement was with Al Thornton. Having gotten more comfortable, he was able to be aggressive. Rather than doing his normal thing of just getting the ball outside & then doing a one-on-one move against his man, he cut & caught the ball down low. The coaching staff had him doing this the previous game too, and it’s brought him to life & made him a real threat. Also, Al’s taking more shots closer to the rim than last year (as beautifully examined in this post by Kevin Arnovitz).
Lastly, on a larger scale the difference was that the Clippers finally were able to score in the fourth. The last several games they’ve sometimes struggled to score even 15 points in the last quarter. Against the Thunder they managed 26 and it was Oklahoma who fell apart & only managed 17 points. Hopefully this helps get this particular monkey off their back.
What would I still like to see them improve (besides their win total)?
1. I’d really like Baron to go back to occasionally posting up his guy like they did at the beginning of the season. I’m not sure why they stopped doing it. Particularly in the fourth quarter since Kaman’s panicked being in that spot. Post-up Baron instead of Chris. Baron will be much better at passing out of the double calmly than Chris will. If Chris’ man comes over, then Baron will pass it to Chris for the easy layup. If someone else’s man doubles, Baron should be able to get it right to the open person rather than needing the team to swing it around to find an open player.
2. Have Novak & Kareem Rush work on passing down low to Kaman so that they can get the open shot if their guy doubles. Kareem only attempted 2 threes. I’m not saying I want him shooting 8 a game like Rasual, but if he (or Novak, or maybe one day Rasual) get a couple more up it’ll keep opposing defenses honest. Also in general I’d love Baron & Telfair to work on paying attention to whether defenders slink away from those shooters. Particularly with Novak’s quick release, if his guy pinches even a bit into the middle, give Stevie the rock.
3. Have Camby work on covering PFs who can shoot. Camby’s so used to playing centers and protecting the basket that he often sloughs off too much when the other team has a PF/C who can shoot from distance. It happened with Krstic, Bargnani, & Jeff “Don’t Call Me Al” Green. Actually, some of the times it was Kaman who was guarding the outside shooter, not Camby. So really it’s more of a team thing of learning how to have our bigs adjust to come outside now that so many teams have 4s that stretch the floor. When Blake Griffin comes back he’ll probably do a much better job defending those guys, but in the meantime we need either Kaman or Camby to start coming out on the 4s.
Anyway, that’s not to say there aren’t other things to work on (like for some reason we keep getting killed on the boards), but many of those things seem more like effort/focus things. The above are coaching/player choices/decisions which can be concretely instituted.