Whenever a playoff series reaches a decisive final game, both coaches are likely to add some wrinkles to their gameplans to try and give their team the edge. In advance of tomorrow night’s win-or-go-home game against the Denver Nuggets, here are four potential game 7 adjustments for the LA Clippers that Doc Rivers could be considering.
Boost up the minutes
When it comes to his stars’ playing time, Doc Rivers hasn’t been Mike Budenholzer this playoffs, but he hasn’t been Nick Nurse either. Kawhi Leonard is playing 39 minutes per game and Paul George is playing just under 37. In close games, Leonard has mostly found himself between 39 and 42 minutes played, and George’s range has been similar except for when he’s in foul trouble.
Those numbers are a far cry from the 36-minute “ceiling” that Budenholzer claimed he had for Giannis Antetokounmpo, but they don’t quite reach Nurse’s heavy usage of his starters, like when Kyle Lowry played 46 minutes in game 3 against the Boston Celtics to avoid a 3-0 deficit. In game 7 between Boston and Toronto, the Celtics played their four perimeter starters between 42 and 44 minutes while the Raptors gave slightly higher minutes to Norman Powell off the bench but still leaned heavily on their mainstays, headlined by Fred VanVleet’s 45 minutes played.
Last season in the playoffs, Leonard broke 42 minutes in regulation a couple of times, playing 43 in games 4 and 7 of Toronto’s second-round series against the Sixers. I think he’ll play 42-44 minutes tomorrow. George has played 45-46 minutes in elimination games in recent years, so we’ll have to see how heavily Rivers is willing to lean on him. Doc did suggest at practice today that he’d increase minutes for key guys in a game 7:
It’s a little more dicey to consider how this could impact the Clippers’ other starters, though. While we can expect Rivers to be less cautious about Patrick Beverley’s minutes restriction than he was early in the series, you still don’t want to run a guy into the ground or overplay him early and lose him for the rest of the game. Bev also tends to limit his own minutes with foul trouble, and if George and Leonard are playing 42+, the only remaining available minutes are at point guard if Rivers needs to get Lou Williams on the floor to provide a boost on offense.
Marcus Morris can play more than his 30 minutes per game, has reached 35-36 minutes in some games this post-season, and could probably go for 40+ if asked. But he’s been inconsistent offensively and only average defensively in this series, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense to play him huge minutes unless he’s having a hot shooting night. If Morris isn’t having a super hot shooting night where you can’t take him off the floor, backup JaMychal Green has played well in this series and definitely deserves a chance to get extended run–and Rivers could also play smaller with Leonard and PF and George at SF to create more guard minutes for Williams and Landry Shamet.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of Zubac’s minutes. Doc’s trust in Zu seems drastically heightened compared to last season and even earlier this year, but he’s still kept the young center capped at around 30-32 minutes. Nuggets start Nikola Jokic has been good against Zubac, but significantly better against anyone else–so far this series, the Clippers have won the 154 minutes when Zubac has played vs Jokic by 37 points, while the Nuggets have won the 70 minutes Jokic has played vs anyone else by 38 points. There’s no doubt that Zubac needs to be an important part of the Clippers’ plan against Jokic, but if his conditioning limits him to the low 30s, the Clippers will need a plan for how to guard Jokic when Zu is out.
Switch Jokic’s coverages
From Doc Rivers’ perspective, though, I think Zubac has been more the problem than the solution in this series. Comparatively, he’s been miles better than Montrezl Harrell, whose play has been a disaster on both ends of the court, but Rivers hasn’t been pleased with either center’s defensive impact in this series, saying after game 6 that he didn’t “think either of our 5s were effective tonight.”
I would be shocked if either Zubac or Harrell moved to the bench entirely–no matter how much I think Harrell should be benched–but I think Doc Rivers might reduce minutes for both of them to try alternative small-ball looks vs Jokic in game 7. When things got bad late in game 6, Rivers showed the Nuggets a look with Paul George guarding Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard guarding Nikola Jokic. While this leaves the Clippers at a severe disadvantage in the post against Jokic, it all but negates the team’s need to help and recover to shooters against the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, as the two elite wing defenders can simply switch.
When the Clippers bait Jokic into contested mid-range looks on a switch, it’s a defensive possession that they’ll live with. But if he has the composure and determination to force his way to the rim against a smaller opponent, it could become untenable for LAC. In the post, the Clippers are at a disadvantage but it might not be as severe as you’d expect–since they have to double Jokic when playing with a traditional center anyway, bringing the double with quicker lineups on the floor just makes recovering, rotating, and switching easier.
If Leonard is drawing the defensive assignment at center for stretches of game 7, then the door is open for Rivers to exercise some creativity with the newfound forward minutes. He could keep Marcus Morris in his power forward role and bring in an extra guard in Williams or Shamet, or slide Morris to small forward and bring in JaMychal Green, who would help with floor spacing and shooting while also helping on the defensive glass. If Rivers is committed to finding opportunities for Harrell to have an impact in this game, he could try to play Trez in the power forward matchup with Paul Millsap. Millsap’s had a good series, and I’m a bit scared of his physicality and craftiness against Harrell, but it’s certainly an easier assignment for Trez than Jokic, and regardless of his ineffectiveness on offense in the playoffs it’s clear that Rivers likes the idea of Montrezl attacking Jokic on the other end. But one of the advantages of playing small against Jokic is the Clippers’ ability to put 5 above-average three-point shooters on the floor, force Jokic to defend in space, and open up driving lanes. Harrell’s paint-clogging interior scoring takes that threat away.
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Tap into depth
One of the biggest factors in a game 7 can be sheer randomness. Because of the small sample size, anything can happen, and role players can make outsized contributions in limited minutes. Just look at game 7 between Houston and OKC in the first round this year: Lugentz Dort shot 29% from three this season and was shooting 18% in the series before he made 6-12 from deep in game 7. Even in a less extreme example, a guy like Jeff Green can come off the bench and make 3-4 from deep. In game 7 between Utah and Denver, both teams shot in the mid-20%s from deep–in a game that was decided at the buzzer, just one hot role player could have changed the outcome of the entire series with a few third-quarter shots.
It’s what makes a game 7 so terrifying: what if Torrey Craig, who the Clippers have been happy to double off of all series, hits 4-5 from deep in the second quarter and forces LA to adjust their scheme? What if Monte Morris has 8 straight points to start the fourth quarter?
But randomness can help you just as much as it can hurt you, and the Clippers have a chance to make a bit of their own luck. Landry Shamet and Lou Williams have shot just 18% and 13% from deep in this series, respectively, with most of those misses being on open or wide-open shots. Between those two, Morris, Beverley, and Green, the Clippers could desperately use some shooting from their role players to punish Denver for helping on Leonard and George: the team is 64-184 from deep in the series, but the supporting cast’s share of that is a miserable 31-103.
If things aren’t clicking offensively, Rivers has a bit of depth at his disposal to experiment with and see what sticks. At guard, Reggie Jackson has been awful as a Clipper at pretty much everything but shooting–but he made 57% of his threes in the first round before playing his way out of the rotation against Denver. At power forward, Patrick Patterson played a ton of minutes for LA this year as a floor-spacer before the Morris acquisition, shooting 39% from three. He hasn’t played a meaningful minute here in the playoffs, but could particularly be a sturdy veteran option at power forward against Millsap if the Clippers slide Morris to SF and put Kawhi at C on Jokic.
There’s also the outside chance that Rivers calls upon little-used veteran Joakim Noah. He’s clearly not happy with how Zubac and Harrell have defended Jokic, but has limited options–and when he was frustrated with Zubac in the third quarter of game 6 and pulled him early, he could only turn to the significantly worse Harrell who opened the floodgates for Denver’s offense. Slowing down Jokic by putting in Harrell is like putting out a fire with lighter fluid. Noah is a more viable choice in an emergency, even if there are a number of small-ball looks that are probably preferable to calling on someone so rusty in such a crucial moment.
Make Denver defend on the weak side
As much as the focus of the conversation in this series has been how the Clippers match up defensively agains Jokic–and how awful they’ve been on that end with Harrell in the game, Rivers has reiterated that he thinks their offense is letting their defense down.
While he might be downplaying other issues that are legitimate problems, he’s not wrong about the offense. The Clippers have been remarkably stagnant, particularly in the second halves of games–in games 5 and 6, they scored a total of just 84 second-half points while shooting 31% from the field and 27.5% from deep. These problems beget other problems: because they miss so many shots, they’ve been outrebounded during both of Denver’s second-half comebacks, and that means the Nuggets are able to play faster and get better looks in on the break and in secondary transition on offense. While Denver’s 24-52 (46%) shooting from deep over the last two games is significantly above their average–particularly the 7-9 from three they’ve put up in each fourth quarter–they’re getting good looks against a defense that isn’t set.
The Clippers don’t have time to install a full motion offense in one day, but they can absolutely instruct their players to emphasize simple off-ball actions that everyone knows–pin down screens for shooters, flare screens on the weak side while Kawhi or PG is running the pick-and-roll, or even some rudimentary floppy and elevator actions that the team has done on occasion for George this year.
Doc Rivers likes to say that this is a make or miss league, and it’s largely true. Sometimes a sharpshooter misses a wide open shot in the corner, sometimes Kawhi Leonard elevates over perfect defense and nails a 18-footer. The Clippers’ stars are missing during the stretches that the Nuggets are going on runs.
But a coach isn’t helpless. Spacing the floor can help open up driving lanes to give Leonard and George higher-efficiency opportunities on their drives. Targeting certain players, like Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic, in pick-and-rolls can create advantageous switches. Executing weak-side actions helps everyone–not only would Morris setting a flare screen for Shamet potentially help Landry get a good look from the corner, but it could leave Morris open to pop out to the wing as well as distract their defenders from fully digging in to help on dribble penetration.
After the disaster of game 6, the Clippers don’t just need “more focus” or to “play harder.” They need to tactically adjust to prod at Denver’s weaknesses, just as the Nuggets have successfully identified and exploited LA’s in the last two games.