Clippers switch gears on defense

May 13, 2014

(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

It all started when Coach Doc Rivers put Chris Paul on Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.

That’s when the Oklahoma City Thunder turned the ball over far too often and let the Los Angeles Clippers make a run. It’s how they eventually blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead to help the Clips tie the series at two games a piece. And now, we’re not hearing the end of it: Chris Paul can guard Kevin Durant. But really, the Clippers’ major comeback in the final period of Sunday’s Game 4 was more about team defense than anything else.

Durant actually scored well against Paul. He made four of his five shots while Paul manned him for 10 fourth-quarter points.

Still, the Thunder had just an 88.6 offensive efficiency in the fourth, and that was no coincidence. Durant’s post-ups at the right elbow weren’t as inefficient as they were ball-stopping. That’s the problem with the Thunder offense. It becomes stagnant. It favors ugly isolation basketball and ball-movement goes away.

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, Paul became the Clippers’ best pick-and-roll defender, as the Clips switched up their coverage and started to blitz screen-and-roll ball-handlers. But it was Paul’s activity off the ball that made the difference and forced shots into the hands of guys OKC wouldn’t normally want shooting. Just on one possession here, Paul is asked to defend a 1-3 screen-and-roll, recover in time to a rim-running Durant, cut off a passing lane and then front the Thunder star in the post:

A diminutive point guard can’t really do that stuff against a league MVP who stands almost a foot taller than him. But that’s what we saw Paul do all fourth quarter.

Really though, the Clippers defended Durant as a team. They brought over hard doubles often when he had the ball. And even when Durant was without the rock, Los Angeles did all it could to front the Thunder’s best player, jump passing lanes and make sure the ball wasn’t in his hands. Look at how Danny Granger blocks off a passing lane to Durant when his man, Nick Collison, hardly a perimeter threat, is on the wing.

The Clippers got their turnovers when Durant tried to post up in that right-elbow area. LA was forceful on doubles, and guards like Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison were quick to jump passing lanes and successfully go for interceptions. On this play, Blake Griffin immediately notices the entry pass to Durant and speedily doubles:

When Griffin comes over to help on Durant, the Clippers need to compensate on the weak side. One of Durant’s biggest improvements this season came as a cross-court passer. But Los Angeles took away the pass to the weak-side corner, an aspect at which it seriously struggled for the first few games of the series.


Crawford shifts toward the basket and Granger properly fronts Ibaka. The left corner isn’t an option, so that leaves Durant with one alternative: get it to Jackson. Crawford anticipates the pass, picks it off, and takes the other way for a layup.

That’s how the Clips scored eight points off five fourth-quarter turnovers. Sunday, the Clippers forced the Thunder to cough it up by pushing them into inefficient, immobile spots on the floor and aggressively doubling from there. That strategy, though, probably couldn’t work for four more quarters or three more games. Teams can’t maintain that energy or physicality for so long and even Scott Brooks would find some way to adjust, but at least for 12 minutes in Game 4, it saved the Clippers’ season.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at Bleacher Report or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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