After the Clippers won game 1 in a blowout, their challengers from Denver brought more fight and won last night, 110-101. Read on for five takeaways from the Clippers’ game 2 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
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Let’s not overreact
The Clippers lost tonight, and they didn’t look very good while doing it. What should we be more freaked out about: the Clippers allowing 44 points in the first quarter, or only scoring 45 of their own in the second half while playing from behind? The answer is that neither thing was good, but neither warrants a freak-out either.
First of all, if you haven’t accepted it yet, now would be a good time: the Denver Nuggets are a good basketball team. You don’t wind up 3rd in the West and in the second round by accident–just ask all of the Lob City teams that failed to meet one or both of those marks. Are the Clippers better? Sure. LAC finished ahead of Denver with Paul George recovering from double shoulder surgery, Kawhi Leonard load managing, and the rest of the team generally taking a casual approach to the regular season. But a good team winning a game against a great team isn’t exactly shocking. The 9.5-point spread favoring the Clippers in game 2 was always absurd.
The Denver Nuggets’ 44-point first quarter was a punch in the Clippers’ mouth, but it wasn’t exactly sustainable: no team is ever going to shoot 71% from the field or 64% from three for longer than one period. And, rewatching the defensive possessions from that period, I don’t think the Clippers were particularly awful on defense, either. Yeah, there were breakdowns, especially later in the quarter with Montrezl Harrell losing Nikola Jokic for back-to-back threes. But most of Denver’s points came in transition, on difficult contested threes, or late in the shot clock. The Nuggets’ scoring was a combination of their own defense creating fast breaks via 11 points off of 6 LAC turnovers, hitting tough shots, and getting some lucky bounces.
The Clippers certainly can, and need to, do better than they did in the quarter, but it’s a mischaracterization to pin the 44 points entirely on defensive execution when Denver had those 11 fast break points, a three when Patrick Beverley slipped on defense, two more tough contested threes, and a play where a deflected pass landed in Jamal Murray’s hands for a layup. (You can’t just subtract those 22 points from Denver’s total as flukes, since everyone gets some fast breaks and everyone makes some tough shots, but if less things break Denver’s way that’s probably a low-30s quarter.)
As the game wore on, the Clippers ramped up the defensive pressure, holding the Nuggets to just 38 points in the entire second half. But the Clippers themselves couldn’t score. Again, while we can credit the Nuggets for playing well defensively, and particularly for bringing a heightened level of aggressiveness and physicality that LAC wasn’t ready for, the Clippers aren’t gonna struggle like that often. Kawhi Leonard was just 4-17 from the field for 13 points–sorry to Jerami Grant, who played a great defensive game, but it largely came down to Kawhi missing a lot of shots he normally makes tonight. As a whole, the Clippers shot 9-32 (28%) from three, well below their team average of 37.1%. In 11 games where they shot 28% or below from deep this season, LAC went 5-6.
All things considered, it was impressive that LAC was as committed to this game as they were. They went down 7-2 in the first 3 minutes of the game and only got the deficit back to 5 points at 91-86. It is incredibly difficult to maintain focus while losing for an entire game, but the Clippers ultimately put themselves in a position to steal a game late that they had trailed wire-to-wire and played quite poorly in. That fortitude could make a huge difference in a playoff series if it helps LAC steal a game at some point in this run.
JaMychal Green was a bright spot
On a night when most of LAC’s mainstay players struggled in one area or another, Green was pretty thoroughly stellar, with 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 2-3 3pt shooting in 26 minutes–the most he’s played this post-season (game 1’s 21 minutes was the only other time he got past 18). Rivers tends to prefer to go against the grain with his bigs, punishing small teams down low and forcing great opposing centers to defend on the perimeter. The team had a good amount of success with Green tonight and I expect to see more of this look going forward in the series.
Not only does utilizing JaMychal Green at center bring the floor-spacing wrinkle that neither Ivica Zubac nor Montrezl Harrell provides, but he can make big contributions defensively and on the glass as well. In game 2, Green led all Clippers with 11 rebounds (Zubac had 9 in 20 minutes, Harrell 3 in 18), and over a larger sample size he isn’t quite as good on the glass as Zu but is a significantly better rebounder than Harrell. Defensively, he gives up a lot of size against Nikola Jokic down low, but is more effective against Jokic’s elite perimeter shooting and passing. Plus, if the Clippers aren’t going to be able to play single-coverage against Jokic down low, having Green as part of the double-team gives Doc Rivers a more mobile defender to cover rotations and switches.
Doc Rivers was impressed with Green tonight, saying “I thought he was very good at the 5. I thought he was really the only one that showed Jokic any physicality. Everybody else showed Jokic whatever he wanted. I thought JaMychal got into him and played him physical but the other end he stretches the floor for us, which is good, as well.” While it’s unclear how it will impact the minutes of Zubac and Harrell, it seems pretty likely that JaMychal Green is going to have a bigger role as this series progresses.
The Clippers were disorganized defensively
As much as the Nuggets’ first-quarter offensive explosion featured a mixture of easy transition points and tough shots, and as much as Denver slowed offensively as the game went on, I still walked away from this game a bit worried about the Clippers’ coverage of Nikola Jokic. Jokic had 26 points and just 4 assists–in reality, he didn’t kill the Clippers as badly as he could have tonight (though his 24 first-half points were clinical).
Jokic is Denver’s best player, one of the best players in the league, and in my view the best offensive center in the NBA. So, I’m not looking for the Clippers to stop him–which is good news, because they aren’t going to. The Clippers also don’t particularly have a Jokic “stopper,” in part due to their center options being the young Ivica Zubac and undersized Montrezl Harrell, but in part due to Jokic’s lethal combination of inside scoring, shooting, ball handling, and playmaking making him a tough cover for anyone.
It’s okay to say that Jokic is going to be productive (within reason) and you’ll win the game elsewhere, so I wouldn’t hate for the Clippers to try any number of things against him and stick with any coverage where he isn’t absolutely destroying you. Whether it’s Zubac single-coverage, or they’re playing small and trapping him hard, doubling down in the post, switching a smaller player on him to pester him on the perimeter and then bringing help on the drive/roll–none of it’s gonna stop him but you can execute any of those strategies with some degree of success. I wouldn’t even hate the idea of fronting Jokic with an athlete like George or Leonard ready to jump on an over-the-top pass–he’s such a great passer once the ball is in his hands, it might make more sense to bring a second defender before he gets the ball and force Denver’s other guys to make skip passes under pressure.
But whatever the Clippers are gonna do, they have to actually do. You can’t play team defense when each guy has no clue what each other guy is gonna do on the court. Take a look at this play:
As Murray comes around Jokic’s screen, Zubac plays drop coverage and Morris chases Murray–exactly what the Clippers want to do to contain the explosive guard. But when the pass naturally comes to Jokic on the pop, Leonard and Zubac aren’t on the same page. Leonard, expecting Zubac to recover, stunts at Jokic and stays with Millsap. Zubac, expecting Leonard to step up, moves towards Millsap for the switch. As a result, they’re both running away from the ball as Jokic lines up a comfortable three-point shot.
There isn’t a bad answer here! The Clippers probably need Leonard to cover that shot, but if he can effectively stunt to delay Jokic, it’s fine to ask Zubac to hustle out to the perimeter and recover (Jokic shot 31% from three this year–you don’t want to leave him wide-open, but if you can get a contest it’s better than having him kill you inside). What you can’t have is guys who aren’t on the same page, leading to a breakdown. Check this one out:
Here, the Clippers bring the double vs Jokic–but they bring it from the baseline and the top of the lane, making for an easy kick-out pass to a wide open shooter. Other times, the double barely came at all:
By the time Williams’ half-hearted double-team arrives, Jokic has already turned baseline and finished an easy shot over Zubac.
These problems feed into each other. If we know that we want to send a double team at Jokic when Zu is in single coverage against him in the post, we need to know who that double is coming from and when it’s coming. Otherwise, you get one play where George and Green both come early and blow the coverage, and another where Morris and Williams watch and wait for each other to go and blow the coverage. Sometimes, the Clippers doubled off of the strong-side wing when Jamal Murray made the entry pass. That’s not where you want the double to come from!
These aren’t “play with more intensity” or “play better defensive personnel” mistakes. They’re the mistakes of a team full of good individual defenders who have yet to figure out how to play off of each others’ tendencies in a system to be a great defensive team. And that is what’s concerning about their disorganization.
Trimming the rotation will be complicated
Right now, the Clippers are still playing 10 guys. That’s… not normal at this stage in the playoffs. Denver played 9 guys tonight, with no substitute breaking 20 minutes. In the day’s first game, Toronto played a tight 7-man rotation, with Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry playing 46, 45, and 44 minutes. Boston played just 9 guys, with each sub playing 11-15 minutes.
The Clippers’ situation is a little unique, with starting point guard Patrick Beverley still on a minutes restriction as he recovers from a calf injury. With Beverley playing just 4 minutes a quarter, there’s 32 point guard minutes available to bench players–compare that to last season, when Bev averaged 32 minutes per game in the playoffs and just 16 went to substitutes. In game 2, Landry Shamet’s 10 minutes, Reggie Jackson’s 9 minutes, and some of Lou Williams’ 29 minutes came at the backup point guard position. As Bev gets back to a full minutes load, that’s too many mouths to feed. But as Rivers has stuck with his strategy of playing 4 reserves together with either Paul George or Kawhi Leonard in the late 1st/3rd and early 2nd/4th quarters, trimming one of Shamet or Jackson from the rotation entirely will require rearranging some substitution patterns as well.
Montrezl Harrell needs to find a way to be playable
Then, of course, there’s the Montrezl Harrell problem. Finally freed of his horrific match-up with Boban Marjanovic in the first round, Harrell has still struggled pretty majorly here against Denver. He’s had success drawing fouls in second-unit run against Mason Plumlee, but shot just 4-8 from the free throw line tonight. His finishing has been poor too–for a guy who doesn’t shoot from further than 3 feet away, 8-17 in this series means a lot of points left at the rim. But it’s defensively where he’s a mess. A highlight block against Michael Porter Jr in game 1 was great, but 99% of plays aren’t highlights, and his 99% ain’t good.
In the first quarter, he absolutely blew two first-action coverages to leave Jokic wide open at the three-point line:
In both of these plays, Trez doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s doing–and importantly, neither do the guards he’s defending the action with. His most brutal possession came in the fourth quarter as Denver slammed the door shut on the Clippers:
Not only does Trez inexplicably abandon Jokic to trap Murray on the ball, but he’s either lost or lazy on the rotation once the ball leaves Murray’s hands. The Clippers are all but playing 4-on-5 when he’s on the floor.
It can be cherry-picking to grab a few plays where a guy made a lapse, but with Harrell it’s all too consistent–and plays like these cost you close games in the playoffs.
Thanks for checking out these five takeaways from the Clippers’ game 2 loss to the Nuggets–be sure to stay tuned to 213Hoops for coverage all series long.
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