The comeback Clippers strike again
The LA Clippers found themselves in another precarious position on the second night of a back-to-back, down 10 points to the Memphis Grizzlies, 108-98, with 6:48 to play.
Without Kawhi Leonard, and down Rodney McGruder due to a lower leg injury suffered earlier in the game, the Clippers had just enough left in the tank to eke out another comeback victory. LA edged out Memphis 121-119 on a game-winning putback by Montrezl Harrell, extending the team's winning streak to seven.
Let's break down what the Clippers did well during the final stretch to snatch victory from the hands of defeat.
Down 10, Paul George drives into the heart of the defense, and all five Grizzlies converge on him. That leads to George kicking out the ball and the Clippers swinging it until it lands on Lou Williams for the triple.
Ball movement was key for LA. On average, the Clippers make 23.5 assists per game, but that is generally with Leonard, an isolation maven, in the lineup. Without him, they were forced to make the extra pass. The Clippers ended the game with 30 assists on 44 total baskets.
The fact that the ball ends up in Williams' hands is no accident either. Since the start of last season, Williams is fifth in fourth-quarter scoring in the NBA (7.3 points per game), behind James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kemba Walker. One of LA's closers may have been out of commission, but Williams is more than capable of picking up the slack.
A comeback isn't possible without stops, and minus Leonard and McGruder, the Clippers were without two of their best defenders. McGruder, the replacement starter, had limited Ja Morant to four points before exiting with an injury, and Morant had taken off in his absence.
Williams' presence on the floor meant the Grizzlies had a weak link to attack, which they did. However, Williams committed on the defensive end, ably executing a switch with George and getting back to contest Jae Crowder's jumper. Williams doesn't have to be a plus-defender given the value he provides on the offensive end; but he can't be a sieve, particularly when Leonard isn't around to clean up his mistakes.
Just look at what happens when Williams makes plays on defense.
Admittedly, Memphis is far too careless with the ball on this possession, as Williams should never be able to intercept a pass made to a big at such close range. The Grizzlies struggled with turnovers throughout the night, giving the ball away on 18.7% of their possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.'
Lou's playmaking was a highlight, as he set a career-high with 13 assists to go along with his 24 points. George has done an admirable job of distributing the ball while working next to Leonard, but Williams is the more accomplished primary creator.
The Clippers' halfcourt offense was pedestrian against the Grizzlies, another consequence of missing Leonard and not having a full-length practice in two weeks. But the team was excellent in transition, especially off of live rebounds. Patrick Beverley corrals the board, as he does, and immediately gets the Clippers moving on the break. The Grizzlies don't get their defense set in time, and George gets a clean look at a corner three.
Beverley isn't a natural point guard in the half court, but he becomes a substantially better playmaker when he pushes the pace. About a fifth of LA's possessions came in transition against Memphis, and the Clippers had an offensive rating of 147.6 in those situations, helping to prop up their stagnant set offense.
As Mike Fratello pointed out on the broadcast, the Clippers get George open at the top of the arc with a back pick and flare action. The team has been setting back picks for George on clutch time since he entered the lineup, part up of the play calls that Doc Rivers has referred to as the "Paul George package". A similar set got George open for the game-winner against Oklahoma City, and JaMychal Green also set a back screen to free George late against Houston.
At this point, Lou Williams' ability to beat a defender one-on-one, specifically when he is driving to his right, needs no further explanation. It's what he does. Williams also has a good understanding of the clock to make sure that the Clippers will likely get the last shot, while also leaving time for a potential putback.
Three defenders hone in on Williams, leaving Morant to have to box out Harrell. That isn't a fair ask for the rookie. Harrell had to work to deal with the physicality of Jonas Valanciunas throughout the game, but clearing out Morant is no sweat. Harrell easily gets in position to tip in his bench mate's miss and give the Clippers the lead.
All that's left is one last stop, and Moe Harkless, who sat on the bench for nearly the entire second with foul trouble, steps right in to make the game-saving defensive play.
On Thanksgiving, the Clippers can be thankful for the clutch prowess of Lou Williams, a never-ending supply of rangy, defensive-minded wings, and the hustle of Montrezl Harrell. As a result, LA is 14-5, third place in the Western Conference, and cruising into a Black Friday matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.