Clippers’ Austin Rivers has perfect defensive test vs. Warriors


As the Los Angeles Clippers face Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, Austin Rivers must show up defensively.

Imagining Austin Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers as an All-NBA anything isn’t easy. His start in the league has been up and down, and his performance is certainly still questionable at times. Yet, after his breakout games in the playoffs last season and the improvements he’s shown so far in 2015-16, it appears his ceiling is a little higher than some might think. Not so high that he’ll suddenly blossom into a star player for the Clippers, but high enough that he can have more of a positive impact than we’ve grown accustomed to. Specifically this season, it’s his defense that deserves a little attention.

In fact, Rivers is aiming for his defense to earn far more attention by the end of the year, as he said on SiriusXM NBA Radio that he wants to be an All-Defensive player.

You could say that “Rivers should be focussed on winning not personal awards” or something along those pessimistic lines. He’s got a long way to go before being considered for such esteemed accolades. But that’s probably not what he’s getting at at all. If anything, Rivers is most likely implying that he wants to improve his defensive game so much that he deserves high recognition for it. That’s more than a respectable goal for a player who needs to develop if he wants to truly help the Clippers going forward.

Rivers’ defense has actually been pretty impressive so far this season. He’s more athletic than his critics like to remember, and he has both the explosion to contest shots and the lateral quickness to stick with fast guards on the perimeter. His current career-high 0.9 steals in his 25.1 minutes per game is a nice indication of the latter.

He just seems to be reading his opponents better than normal. He’s switched on, he’s surveying player’s movements and screens, and most importantly he’s playing with great energy and drive to defend. Which, as all top defenders know, is possibly the most important attribute to have.

Rivers is using that intensity to force opponents to shoot a remarkable 11.3 percent worse than normal within 10 feet of the basket this season. And linking back to that explosiveness mentioned to contest layups, he’s holding players to 16 percent lower than normal within six feet. Those numbers alone are highly impressive, even for an early stage of the season. As for his play on the perimeter, he continues to hassle opponents by reducing their three point efficiency by 12.5 percent when he’s guarding them (per’s Player Tracking).

Until you actually look into the numbers, it seems almost hard to believe he’s been playing that well defensively. But, as he pursues his goal of being named to an All-Defensive team, that’s what he’ll need to keep up throughout the year. And if he really wants to be a positive difference maker for the Clippers off the bench, it’s going to have to be with a stellar defensive effort due to his offensive struggles that still persist at times.

November 7, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rocketsguard Ty Lawson (3) plays for the ball against Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers (25) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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There’s no way to deny that Rivers has his faults. He’s taking care of the ball well (only 10 total turnovers this season) and he has his productive moments, but when it comes to running an offense effectively, monitoring the pace, getting everyone involved or executing pick-and-rolls, he just isn’t as reliable.

As the Clippers face the Golden State Warriors Thursday night, it’s going to be hard for him to get anything going at either end of the floor. The defending champions used their astounding defense to smother opponents during their entire title campagin, and their 2015-16 season has been no different.

Without Chris Paul, Rivers will be under immense pressure to handle the ball and not force too many errant passes before they’re picked off by the Warriors.

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As for his chance to shine on defense, he essentially has a golden opportunity. That is, if you want to take an optimistic approach. If Rivers can do anything to bother Curry and do his part defensively to keep the game more competitive, he deserves praise. Because as the reigning MVP continues to burn opponents after averaging 33.7 points on 52.1 percent shooting, it’s clear that no one has been able to slow him down.

So, could this somehow be Rivers’ chance to prove himself as a All-Defensive player in the making? Well, to be the best, you have to beat the best. Maybe in some unfortunate and unbelievably difficult way, Austin Rivers is actually getting what he wants. A chance to start and go toe-to-toe with the most unstoppable player in the NBA right now.

Austin, you’ve got the ultimate test on your hands if Paul isn’t back tonight.

Good luck.