Returning from the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Clippers were looking to rediscover the same intensity they showed throughout December and January. Their situation was a bit unique, where the team felt comfortable with how they performed through the first 38 games – despite injuries and random absences derailing their continuity – while also feeling the pressure to snap out of a losing skid.
Maintaining a positive perspective has seemed to be the overarching theme of Ty Lue’s early tenure as head coach. Following three straight losses, which dropped the Clippers down to the fourth seed in the West, he continued to use a long-term approach while examining the team's progress. He understood the All-Star break was needed for them to hit the reset button, get healthy and rejuvenated as a collective unit, and clean up some of their late-game issues on the margins.
Much of the national conversation surrounding the Clippers has pointed to their inability to finish games and close the coffin on teams, particularly because of poor shot selection. With every late fourth-quarter blunder, the desire for roster changes drastically increases.
However, there was actually a more alarming area and a bigger cause for concern. The defensive prowess and consistency on that end of the floor wasn't matching the level of expectations their personnel would indicate. The primary reason behind their unimpressive metrics on defense – ranking 23rd in halfcourt defensive rating at the All-Star break – was likely the unpredictable nature of their lineups and availability. It's almost impossible to string together dominant stretches when guys are in and out of the lineup with various injuries, as the defensive game plan is often reliant on having both of their superstar wings, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, available to stagger throughout a game.
When a defensive unit doesn't have enough time together on the floor, it can automatically lead to various issues. As a player, it becomes harder to process or remember teammates' tendencies, it's not as easy to trust each other to provide help in certain spots when a rotation is needed, and communication patterns are different between starter-level players and the role players off the bench.
Thus, the Clippers somehow managed to look average or slightly below average defensively at the midway point ... despite having their five most-used lineups perform extremely well in their respective minutes:
For perspective, the league-average defensive rating this season is hovering around 111.4, meaning all of the lineups shown above would be leading the league by a wide margin.
The problem, which has remained the case since opening night of the 2019-20 season, is that Leonard and George haven't shared the floor enough. They have played 581 total minutes through 25 games, which is only 31% of the team's 1,872 minutes this season. During that duo's minutes, the Clippers have held teams to just 104.7 points per 100 possessions. It just hasn't been a lot of time together in relation to the other mixture of lineups Ty Lue has been forced to experiment with.
But, in reality, the only thing that is going to matter for L.A. is how cohesive they look in the playoffs with both Leonard and George on the floor in critical moments. If healthy, their minutes will be boosted, and they have proven to be a menacing duo when the defensive responsibilities ramp up.
In their first game back from the week-long break, the Clippers had an opportunity to stifle some of the narratives surrounding their team and get back on track. Hosting the Golden State Warriors, who narrowly defeated them in the last meeting due to Stephen Curry's fourth-quarter execution, L.A. had everyone back in uniform – well, briefly – and was able to answer the bell.
The Clippers held Golden State to just 70.8 points per 100 halfcourt possessions on Thursday, marking the second-worst efficiency for the Warriors in a game this season. It was ahead of only the Warriors' opening night debacle in Brooklyn (59.0).
For Los Angeles, it was – by far – their best defensive outing this season as it pertains to limiting teams in their traditional sets, excluding transition:
They were able to hold Golden State to just 1-of-5 on corner threes and 6-of-25 on above-the-break threes.
Much like the past seven years since breaking into stardom, Stephen Curry is the engine that propels the Warriors' offense. If he's in a groove, there typically isn't a thing any opposing defense can do. To prevent him from finding such a groove is the toughest challenge. It requires a comprehensive gameplan on defense, followed by every player being connected with one another to prevent mistakes.
Even the smallest miscue or lapse in communication can lead to danger and gift Curry an open look. Sometimes, that's all it will take, and the basket is larger than the Pacific Ocean for him the rest of the night.
The Clippers were able to keep Curry in human mode throughout the game, as he scored just 14 points on 41.5% true shooting (for context, his season-long mark is 64.1%). They kept him cool from beyond the arc, as he made just 1-of-8 from downtown.
Realizing there is no universe where you can live with drop-coverage on Curry's pick-and-roll possessions, there was clearly a decision made by Ty Lue to either switch every action involving Curry or trap him once he came off a ball-screen.
To properly illustrate how much the Clippers were dedicated to suffocating Curry in the halfcourt, let's dive into the film.
Most of the clips below will include voice narration:
As you can see on the possession above, the Clippers' switch-heavy focus started from the opening tip. Once Curry catches the ball in the left corner, the Clippers switch three times in the next 10 seconds. It culminated in Patrick Beverley getting switched back to Curry as the ball entered the paint, resulting in a tough floater attempt.
"Obviously, he's the main focus," Paul George said after the win. "He's the main target. So it's literally putting two or three guys on him, and showing bodies. We'll give up ourselves to force other guys to have to make plays. And force other dudes to shoot and score the ball."
It's not only about communicating when Curry has the ball. There is a level of devastation that also comes with blowing a switch when he's roaming off the ball. For instance, take this possession, where Kevon Looney catches it at the top of the arc, waiting for Curry to create some confusion before zipping back to the perimeter:
The entire objective there was to hope either George or Beverley failed to switch, which would allow Curry to break free – all he needs is a split second – or give Kelly Oubre a runway to the rim. If the Clippers switch the backscreen immediately, which they did, it puts the Warriors into their secondary and tertiary actions.
Over the last two regular seasons, we've seen the Clippers look aggressive on switches and truly bog down their opponents to force tough isolation attempts. The reality is, though, it's difficult to practice that type of defensive coverage if important pieces of the rotation are missing. Marcus Morris missed a handful of games to begin the season, Beverley was sidelined for a long stretch in February, and the Kawhi-PG pairing has only played 25 of 39 games together.
So, while it's something they absolutely can do and it's a weapon that could make them Western Conference favorites, they need plenty of reps similar to Thursday's game.
When Curry checked back in during the second quarter after a lengthy rest, the game was already getting away from Golden State. Still, the Clippers remained feisty in their coverage against him, not allowing him to break loose and give his team a spark it needed.
Below, you can see the Warriors trying to get L.A. to botch this switch on another back-screen attempt – this time on the inbound pass:
If that looks familiar, it's because the Clippers use the same play to get Kawhi a backdoor cut for an alley-oop. They usually run it with Beverley screening for the inbounder (Kawhi). In that possession, it was either for Wiggins to get into the lane, or for Curry to escape both defenders.
Notice how the Clippers' constant switching ended up with Morris guarding Curry in isolation. This is what a switching defense will lead to, and you can't really ask for a better shot contest.
In lineups that included Reggie Jackson and Lou Williams, the Clippers' emphasis was to trap Curry on his ball-screens and incentivize other players to generate shots. This was perhaps the most telling possession of the game, as it featured nearly flawless timing and execution by Williams and Morris when both rotated:
As Eric Paschall catches on the roll, it was up to Williams and Morris to quickly get into position. If one of them rotated late, the Warriors would have likely found success despite Curry being taken out of the play. This is the type of chemistry and defensive trust that Ty Lue has to feel better about this season.
This next instance of trapping Curry on the pick-and-roll wasn't as clean, but it did end in a positive result for the Clippers. Any time they can get the ball out of an opposing superstar's hands, they can live with ancillary players taking these shots. Also ... they were trapping despite being up 24 points:
On that particular possession, Morris was pulled in too close. Considering George had already rotated over to cut off Green, it was a gamble by Morris to provide that much help.
The switching and trapping scheme worked about as well as Lue could hope for, and it rarely yielded an open look for Curry. On the first play here, Leonard and Beverley switch the off-ball action between Curry and Wiggins, as the Warriors are trying to get into their split cuts. Then, on the next play, Morris "soft switches" onto Curry and lets him settle for a step-back three:
Also, notice how frustrated and uncomfortable Paul George makes the Warriors here, as he completely blows up this screen attempt between Curry and Green. He just sticks on Curry like glue, preventing him from gaining any separation:
Even before Curry runs up to set the screen, George had already switched from Oubre on to the main target. You can see George calling out the switches as Curry is running off those staggered screens, directing traffic and telling his teammates where to be. His leadership on defense is arguably just as important as any type of locker room dynamics we discuss regarding George and the team.
By the end of the third quarter, the Warriors were -19 in Curry's 27 minutes on the floor. It was a bludgeoning at Staples Center, with the Clippers tapping into the exact defensive potential everyone imagined when this group was formed.
The question still remains, however. How many times can they show it throughout a season? If the answer is "not many," it's likely due to injuries.
It didn't last long for that issue to creep back, as Beverley has been ruled out for at least the next three games due to right knee soreness. It's the same knee that irritated him in late January and early February.
The Clippers have the adequate pieces and coaching staff to rework their defensive reputation into what it should be. They just need some luck and healthy fortune to get there.