Though the Los Angeles Clippers have procured a dominant 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets (despite the historical jest associated with that record), the Montrezl Harrell dilemma needs to be sorted out fast – and soon. Simply put, Harrell needs to produce more than points with his minutes.
As the season’s Sixth Man of the Year, Harrell deservedly played 27.8 minutes a game during the regular season. Those minutes led to Harrell averaging 18.6 points per game, a stat which holds a weighty load of determining who takes home an award that rewards exceptional play off the bench.
However, during the regular season, Harrell accomplished much more on the court than merely putting the ball in the hoop. He averaged career-high numbers in offensive and defensive rebounds per game (7.1 total) while providing interior defense with 1.1 blocks per game and boasting a defensive field goal difference percentage of -9.9 on shots less than six feet from the rim.
Through 10 playoff games, Harrell’s production has plummeted to questionable numbers that make you ponder whether he should play at all. In 18.6 minutes a game in Orlando, Harrell is averaging 10.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 0.6 blocks on 57.4% shooting (6.1 attempts). Unsurprisingly, those figures are all inferior to his regular-season numbers.
Before we dive into the film, it’s imperative to outline the external factors and challenges Harrell is facing. Following the death of his grandmother and the countless emotions that come with a significant loss, Harrell’s feet never got wet with any warm-ups or scrimmages. Harrell re-entered the bubble and dove straight into the deep end, with his Orlando debut coming against Dallas in game one of the playoffs. Whereas most players shed their rust in the 11 scrimmage and seeding games, Harrell encountered the challenge of finding his form in a playoff atmosphere – and that challenge is burdening him.
Let’s start by acknowledging Harrell’s scoring ability, which has been his best asset to the Clippers so far. Harrell is going to score in the paint: that’s a given. The downside in the playoffs, however, is that a decline in efficiency is hurting his overall effectiveness.
Against Dallas, these issues weren’t as prominent; Harrell attempted 5.2 shots a game, converting on 61.3% of them. With the Mavericks high-powered offense, you knew scoring wouldn’t be an issue. Despite the Clippers possessing one of the better defenses in the league, they needed players not named Kawhi Leonard or Paul George to score. Still fresh to the bubble, Harrell provided L.A. with an option down low.
In this play, some of Harrell’s distinguished strengths shine. The Clippers clear out the interior for George to penetrate, with Harrell roaming the baseline as you often see with L.A.’s big men as one of George, Leonard or Lou Williams attacks the paint.
Tim Hardaway Jr. forces George to drive left, allowing Luka Doncic to collapse for a double-team. George’s only option is to split the double and get the ball to Harrell. Harrell bobbles the pass, but keeps it inbound and goes to work. Hardaway Jr. and Doncic collapse on Harrell, but Harrell utilizes a strong two-handed dribble to establish authority. He uses his body to create space and goes up strong for the finish.
Against Denver, Harrell’s baskets have a similar theme – he will attack the paint using brute force and score over anyone. It doesn’t matter if there are two or more bodies in his way: he’s fearless in the paint, as the play above illustrates.
But the Nuggets pose a more resilient, tougher defensive threat in the frontcourt than Dallas did, and that’s causing more problems for Harrell offensively. He’s attempted 7.5 shots per game in this series, but is finishing just 53.3% of those looks. Harrell’s shooting in game one and two is why that percentage is anchored down, because he’s 10-13 overall in the last two games.
In spite of that, his points per shot attempt (PSA) in this series sits at 118.4, according to Cleaning the Glass. Including the six games against Dallas, Harrell’s PSA is at 116.4, ranking in the 38th percentile. Considering his figure against Denver is just two points higher, it’s not a notable rise. For comparison’s sake, in two regular-season games against Denver this season, Harrell attained a PSA of 146.4. His shooting numbers may captivate on paper, but there’s plenty of room to progress.
Transitioning to Harrell’s rebounding numbers, it’s not astonishing that they’ve declined in the playoffs. During the regular season, he ranked fifth on the team in defensive rebounding percentage (min. 20 games played). With a DRB% of 16.3, Harrell trailed Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in that category. You can add Joakim Noah and Johnathan Motley, but they didn’t have larger enough sample sizes to qualify.
If it wasn’t for Harrell’s offensive rebounding, his overall rebounding numbers would fall further. In the regular season, Harrell’s ORB% was 9.9, a fairly stout number. In the playoffs, it has plunged to 4.9%. It’s yet another glaring example of how Harrell has failed to regain his regular-season form.
In this clip, the Clippers clear out on the left so Leonard can work on an iso. Gary Harris’ stance propels Leonard to drive with his left. Paul Millsap adds a brilliant contest, leading to a rushed attempt from Leonard. What bothers me is that Harrell watches Nikola Jokic pull down the rebound when he easily could’ve gone to contest it. You’re down ten with seven minutes remaining in the fourth – make a play! The odds are against Harrell, but the lack of effort was very perceptible.
To highlight two rebounding stats, Harrell’s fgDR% is 9.8, placing him in the sixth percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass. His fgOR% is 4.5, which sorts him into the 29th percentile. To compare, he ranked in the 73rd percentile for fgOR% and 19th percentile for fgDR% in the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass. Already a bad defensive rebounder, he’s been truly absent in that facet during the postseason.
Let’s shift to the area of Harrell’s most consequential struggles – defense. I have watched this clip on an infinite loop, and I have no idea what Harrell is doing. Harrell falls asleep mid-pick and roll, allowing Mason Plumlee to walk to the rim while he stands on the perimeter guarding oxygen. L.A. is fortunate that the play resulted in a missed corner three because that should’ve been an easy two points.
Even when the rebound comes to Harrell, he smacks the ball off Reggie Jackson’s face as it rolls out of bounds under his legs. That wouldn’t be the only thing to roll right past him in the clip.
Jokic will positively affect the game on paper and on the court. But when you give the “Joker” a quality look like this, maybe we need to reevaluate who the real joker is.
Harrell can’t shoulder all the blame here, but a portion of it falls on him. The point of a pick-and-roll is a switch to hunt a mismatch. Jackson goes over the screen, but he needs to let the switch materialize. Harrell doesn’t need to drop here. Monte Morris is angling towards the sideline; Harrell can pursue Jokic on the perimeter.
It doesn’t help that the Clippers lose this battle 9 times out of 10, barring a missed shot. Jackson and Harrell have struggled mightily on defense, and though Jackson’s minutes have decreased, Harrell is heading in a similar direction.
This is poor blitz defense on a high pick-and-roll between Jamal Murray and Jokic. Leonard and Green invite Murray to split them with a pass. But Harrell needs to be held accountable for not coming to help. As the low man, Harrell needs to slide to the rim the moment Jokic catches the ball; he has to force Jokic to kick it out, rather than letting him walk in for a dunk.
Another interesting stat brings us back to a number I emphasized earlier – Harrell’s DIFF% on defense. On shots less than six feet from the rim, Harrell didn’t allow effortless baskets during the regular season. Harrell’s DIFF% of -9.9 shows that Harrell had some ability to protect the rim. In the playoffs, that number has taken a stark jump to +3.1%. Players have a better chance to score at the rim against Harrell now than they did in the regular season.
Despite the modern NBA rewarding offense more than defense, rotations shorten and defenses tighten down the stretch of these vital games. Winning a title will always come down to defense, at least to some extent. Montrezl Harrell can score points down low, no doubt. But since he’s stumbling everywhere else, the Clippers have to have some doubt about his ability to be a pivotal player when the game is on the line.
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