When it comes to big playoff games, Clippers fans are all too familiar with the worst kind of pain: a blown lead. Last night, LA were once again caught reeling in a game that would have sent them to their first-ever Western Conference Finals, blowing a big lead and losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Denver Nuggets. Their largest lead in the game was 16 points, 56-40 near the end of the 2nd, but they also led by 13, 80-67, with 1:25 left in the third quarter. By 5:48 to play, Denver had taken a 6-point lead at 94-88–a 19-point swing resulting from a 27-8 run that spanned nearly 8 minutes of game time.
Through the grief, Clippers fans are also asking: why does this always happen to us? The team, of course, infamously blew some notable playoff leads during the Lob City era: a 13-point lead with 4 minutes left in game 5 of their 2014 2nd round series vs OKC and a 19-point second half lead against the Houston Rockets in game 6 of that 2015 2nd round series. But they also seem to be particularly prone to letting double-digit advantages slip away in this postseason. Let’s take a look at each game so far:
- DAL G1: Clips take an early 16-point lead, but fall behind by as much as 14–a 30-point swing–before going on to win.
- DAL G2: Clips lose wire-to-wire.
- DAL G3: The Clippers separate by as much as 18 points in the fourth and hold off a late Mavs run that cuts the final deficit to 8.
- DAL G4: LAC leads by as much as 21 in the first half before blowing the lead and falling behind by as much as 12. They came back to force OT, losing at the buzzer.
- DAL G5: Clips separate early and the game never gets within double digits for the last three quarters.
- DAL G6: Clippers separate in the third quarter, going up by as much as 23 halfway through the third and holding on to win despite the Mavs cutting the lead to just 6 at the 9:00 mark in the fourth quarter.
- DEN G1: LAC pulls away in the 2nd and the fatigued Nuggets have no energy for a comeback.
- DEN G2: The Nuggets get their lead to 20 in 2nd quarter and again in the 3rd, and while LAC cuts the lead to 5 in the 4th they ultimately lose.
- DEN G3: Denver builds a couple smaller leads–12 points in the second quarter, 10 in the 3rd, 7 in the 4th–before LAC wins it late.
- DEN G4: The Clippers jump out to a big early lead, and despite the Nuggets tying the game in the third, LA goes on a run to build an even bigger 19-point lead and win the game.
- DEN G5: As mentioned above, LAC’s 13-point second half lead is undone by a 27-8 run in the late 3rd and early 4th quarters.
Can we learn anything from looking at it that way? The first takeaway might be that most first-half leads evaporate at some point over the course of a game. Basketball is a game of runs, and every team in the playoffs is both a good team and playing hard, so you always have to assume your opponent has a punch left to throw. This isn’t the regular season, where you play a lot of teams that are bad and/or willing to pack it in when they go down double digits.
The Clippers just happen to normally be the team that’s ahead this postseason, because, well, they’re better than the two teams they’ve played so far. So the 10-point first quarter leads that dissipate as a hot shooting start regresses to the mean are probably a little more likely to happen to the Clips.
But in the games they’ve gone down, they’ve benefitted from blown leads too. While they blew a 21-point first-half lead in game 4 against the Mavericks, they also came back from down 12 in the second half to force OT. In games 2 and 3 against the Nuggets, the Clippers were thoroughly outplayed, but they almost stole game 2 by cutting Denver’s 20-point lead to 5 and did steal game 3 when facing a smaller deficit.
In part, this whole saga is a bit of the famous fan complaint that “someone random from the opposing bench always kills US.” Most NBA teams play 5 bench guys on a given night, and given the nature of averages, you’re gonna have a couple guys who aren’t household names scoring above their averages most nights. It doesn’t really afflict any one team more than another, and in the situations where it does, the cause isn’t bad luck–it’s a systemic flaw with the team, like poor depth and/or weak defenders at a certain position.
I don’t have the dataset nor the data analysis skills to prove it, but I suspect that a huge part of the frustration that comes from blowing double-digit leads is universal–Clippers fans just don’t watch the other 29 teams nightly to see how normal it is. Just anecdotally, in Friday’s other game, the Boston Celtics saw a 12-point first quarter lead turn into a 7-point second quarter deficit, and then led 88-78 before a Raptors flurry made the score 89-87. Basketball is a game of runs.
But while conceding runs and blowing leads from time to time is inevitable and unavoidable, there are definitely ways that teams can find themselves more or less likely to have stretches where they struggle. The right combination of personnel decisions and rotation strategies and mitigate the risk of letting up big runs, like Doc Rivers’ choice to keep either Paul George or Kawhi Leonard on the floor with the second unit at all times during the playoffs. As much as LA’s 2nd unit has struggled through 11 playoff games, I have little doubt that Doc’s decision to stagger his stars has helped mitigate those struggles.
- Clippers Mock Draft Roundup: Late September
- Clippers 2020 Exit Interview: Johnathan Motley
- Clippers 2020 Exit Interview: Patrick Patterson
- Clippers’ 2020 Exit Interview: Marcus Morris
- Clippers’ 2020 Exit Interview: Joakim Noah
Similarly, the choice (for much of the playoffs) to play 4-bench lineups around one of those stars exacerbated issues. For example, the bench quartet of Reggie Jackson, Lou Williams, JaMychal Green, and Montrezl Harrell have lost their 46 playoff minutes by 10 points despite almost always having one of George or Leonard on the floor. Even more egregious, the four-man unit of Jackson, Williams, Landry Shamet, and Harrell have lost their 10 playoff minutes together by 23 points.
But these lineups don’t play very much. Ten minutes over 11 games is essentially a meaningless sample size–even 46 minutes is hard to take a ton of stock in, though in this case it backs up common sense and the eye test.
The systemic concession of runs comes when the right combination of match-ups occur against high-usage weak lineups. Take, for example, the Lou Williams – Montrezl Harrell pairing. The league’s most iconic bench duo, Williams and Harrell carried the Clippers’ regular-season offense, allowing them to finish in the 2-seed despite extended absences and rest for both of their stars. But in the playoffs, they’re getting picked apart: the pace is slower, they get fewer minutes and touches, the opposing defenses are better and playing harder, and the opposing offenses are better and more precisely targeting them.
In 155 minutes together this post-season, the Clippers have a -11.2 net rating. That’s a substantial number of minutes: on average, nearly one-third of each playoff game has seen those two share the floor, and the Clippers have lost big in those minutes. If you like raw data, the team has lost those 155 minutes by 41 points. The numbers are consistent between LA’s two series, with the two posting a -11.5 net rating in 85 minutes together in this series alone.
So, the Clippers have a Williams/Harrell problem. It makes sense, both for the reasons I outlined above about how their roles and the playoff environment change the game, but also just based on eye test: Lou is struggling with his shot, making just 22% from deep in this playoff run, and Trez is struggling with everything, with the data showing him consistently making a significant negative impact on the team’s offense, defense, and rebounding. But even with that problem being a constant, the Nuggets can do different things to exacerbate it–or fail to take advantage.
For example, one of the reasons the Clippers haven’t been totally forced to adjust is Torrey Craig. A solid but unspectacular defender and non-factor offensively, Craig allows the Clippers to hide Williams defensively. Remember how the Clippers have a -11.5 net rating in Lou/Trez minutes this series? Their net rating is +17 when Torrey Craig is on the floor and -28.2 when he’s off. I think the Clippers need to find more minutes for Lou Williams than Mike Malone will play Craig, but if I were Doc Rivers, I’d make sure that Lou was in the game every second that Torrey is, in addition to other time.
It’s also a matter of who is going to exploit the glaring weakness that is Montrezl Harrell’s defense. When Denver’s backup center, Mason Plumlee, is in the game, the Clippers are fine–in fact, even against lineups featuring both Williams and Harrell, Denver lineups featuring Plumlee have mustered an offensive rating of just 89.6 (to be fair to Mason, most of those minutes include Craig’s presence for the Nuggets).
Nikola Jokic is Denver’s best player and best passer, the focal point of their offense and their best creator. He’s the guy who makes everything happen, and it shows: the Nuggets have a 107.7 ORTG with Jokic on the floor in this series and a 87.7 ORTG with him off of it. To put it bluntly, the Clippers don’t need to worry a lot about their defensive lineups for the 8 or so non-Jokic minutes, because the Nuggets aren’t going to score a lot of points in those minutes.
But when Jokic is on, he’ll shred a lineup that throws a poor (and often lazy) defender at him in Harrell, especially if that lineup features another poor defender for Nikola to pick on with his passing. In 28 minutes this series where Lou and Trez have both been on the floor vs Jokic, the Clippers have had a dreadful DRTG of 114.9, conceding 77 points in those 28 minutes and losing them by 18 points.
That’s an absolutely brutal combination of data, reasoning, and eye test that seems sure to produce runs for the Nuggets. Sure enough, when Harrell entered the game for Zubac with 1:24 to play in the third quarter, the Clippers held the aforementioned 13-point lead, 80-67. Jokic was in the game, and more than that, Mike Malone immediately subbed Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on as well–he saw an opportunity to exploit a poor defensive lineup and cut into LA’s lead. A 13-point lead became 7 in 84 seconds.
Before this series began, NBA analyst Matt Moore said on the Locked on Nuggets podcast that if Denver was down 8-10 points at the start of the fourth quarter against the Clippers, they’d always have a chance to get back into the game because those minutes are where Montrezl Harrell plays, and the team is poor defensively. But Nikola Jokic has to rest eventually, so the Clippers were fine to start the fourth quarter, and despite a flurry of Denver points the 7-point lead at the end of the 3rd had shrunk to just 6 when Jokic returned to close the game with 8:44 to play.
From there, Jokic got to face 2:11 of Lou/Trez, and the Nuggets scored 9 points in that span to take the lead. Even after Williams exited, Harrell continued to sink the Clippers-on both ends.
Jokic hit an easy jumper over Trez, and then Harrell responded with a truly astounding play where he drove 1-on-4, got blocked instead of kicking out to Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who were open in each corner, and then didn’t get back on defense, leaving his team playing 4-on-5 and conceding a Murray three.
When Doc Rivers took a timeout and took Harrell out of the game, the Clippers’ 13-point lead had turned into a 6-point deficit in just 7:36, with 18 points of that 19-point swing coming in just 4 minutes and 20 seconds where Harrell and Jokic shared the floor in the second half.
A massive run takes a lot of things. It never falls on the shoulders of one guy–basketball is a 5-on-5 game, and everything is interconnected. Part of a run is mentality: the Nuggets had to have a moment where they decided to dig deep and fight back to avoid being eliminated, and the Clippers had to have a moment where they not only let up slightly but became rattled at the prospect of losing the game. Part of a run is luck, too! The Nuggets are a good offensive team, and they played well in the fourth quarter and generated good looks, but they also shot 7/9 from three in the fourth. That’s pretty lucky–and hard to argue against when you see Jamal Murray banking in a contested three.
We can never know when a run is going to happen because of the variance of shot-making in the NBA, but there are moments where we can predict when runs are more likely to happen, and Harrell/Jokic minutes–especially if Lou Williams is also on the court and Torrey Craig isn’t–are about as likely as it gets in this series. Malone recognized the combination for a potential Denver run and brought in an offensive lineup against Lou and Trez. Sometimes runs are unavoidable, but Doc Rivers can mitigate their likelihood by recognizing the same trends Malone is and only playing Williams and Harrell together against lineups that feature Plumlee (especially if Craig is also on the floor).
On Friday, the Clippers blew a 13-point lead by conceding an 18-point swing in just 4 minutes and 20 seconds of flawed personnel against the wrong Denver lineup. For as maligned and tortured as LAC’s fanbase is, the Clippers didn’t blow last night’s lead because they are chronically unlucky, or because they aren’t mentally tough, or because the franchise is cursed. They blew the lead, and lost out on clinching a spot in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, because of a systemic, predictable, and obvious flaw in Doc Rivers’ rotations.