Three weeks ago, things were going well for the Los Angeles Clippers. Sure, they’d just gotten blasted yet again by the Golden State Warriors, but that was a brief bummer in an otherwise sunny start to the 2017-18 NBA season. They had won their first four games behind a cranked-up defense and dynamite work from Blake Griffin, and had bounced back from losses to the Dubs and the somewhat-surprisingly good Detroit Pistons by taking care of business against the Dallas Mavericks.
After the first day of November, the Clippers sat at 5-2, ranking among the league’s half-dozen most efficient teams on both ends of the floor. Since then … well, things have gotten dark. Doc Rivers’ team has cratered, dropping nine straight to fall to 5-11 and into 13th place in the Western Conference.
The disintegration has been total, and after the worst loss of the bunch — a 22-point Monday night stomping at the Timbs of the New York Knicks — point guard Patrick Beverley, who had season-ending knee surgery Wednesday, made sure everyone knew how he felt about it. To wit: “pissed off.”
“This … feels like 100 losses,” Beverley said. “Straight up. This … is weak. This ain’t how I roll. That ain’t OK and I won’t allow it to be OK as long as I’m here. That’s a fact.” […]
“We just got to play harder. That’s it. We just got to play harder. You get rid of the mistakes by playing hard. We’re not playing hard; the first unit, not the whole team. I challenged the first unit to play harder.” […]
“We too cool. We too cool. We come in this game, we come on the court like people are supposed to back down because of the name on the back of our jerseys and that’s not the case. The only thing people are looking at is the name on the front of our jersey, and that’s nine losses in a row. They don’t give a … about what you’ve done in the past or your stats or anything. Teams out here are trying to beat our … and they are beating our … .”
There’s no doubt that opponents have beaten the Clippers’ ellipses of late. The worrisome part: they’ve been doing it on both ends of the floor, and with relative ease.
The Clippers own the NBA’s worst defense since Nov. 1, allowing a catastrophic 111 points per 100 possessions. They rank 24th among 30 NBA teams in that span in opponents’ 3-point percentage, 25th in points allowed off turnovers, 26th in opponents’ field-goal percentage, 29th in opponents’ free-throw rate (measuring how many freebies a team attempts per field-goal attempt) and dead last in defensive impact at the rim, with opponents shooting a scorching 72.3 percent on shots at the basket with a Clipper defender in the neighborhood, despite DeAndre Jordan’s presence.
Being defenseless would be bad enough, but the Clippers’ porousness has come paired with an inability to counterpunch. L.A.’s averaging just 101.2 points per 100 possessions during this nine-game fugue state, the eighth-worst offensive efficiency mark in the league. Griffin’s hot-shooting start to the season has hit a deep freeze, as he’s made just 37 percent of his field-goal attempts and 29 percent of his 3-pointers over the past three weeks. Austin Rivers is taking 13 shots a game and barely making one-third of them.
A reversal of course was to be expected after Chris Paul exited California for the greener pastures of a partnership with James Harden. But over the summer, Doc held up the decentralization of the Clippers’ attack as a cause for optimism: that with CP3 no longer pounding the rock and orchestrating every little action and option, L.A. would adopt a more egalitarian approach emphasizing increased ball movement, aiming for many hands to make light work.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The Clippers have moved the ball during their freefall, ranking just outside the top 10 in passes per game. They’re rarely moving it or themselves into productive positions, though, ranking second-to-last in assist rate and potential assists.
“When the ball sticks we aren’t as good of a basketball team,” Dekker said. “When the ball is not moving you’re easy to guard, and we know that. So we have to do a better job of moving the ball and cutting and playing with pace and putting energy in the ball. That makes the game so much easier.” […]
“It comes down to playing hard and sticking together, and when things are going good, staying level headed, and when things are going bad, staying level headed,” Dekker said.
That’s not easy to do when you’re beset by injury.
Top free-agent addition Danilo Gallinari has been out since Nov. 5 with a strained left gluteal muscle. Exciting Serbian point guard Milos Teodosic, hailed by many as the best passer outside the NBA before coming to the Clips this summer to help fill Paul’s shoes, saw just 32 minutes in two games before going down with an injury to the plantar fascia in his left foot; he hasn’t played in a month. Beverley missed five games with a sore right knee before returning against the Knicks.
In their absence, Rivers has had to lean more heavily for offensive creation on Griffin, his son Austin and sixth man Lou Williams. He’s also had to hand starting roles and bigger minutes to a core of reserves — swingman Wesley Johnson, rookie guards Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans — who just aren’t equipped to handle that kind of workload.
“Because of the injuries, there’s not much you can do, but I like the fact that we’re still in every game,” the coach told Pina. “You take three of your top six players out of your lineup, you’re gonna probably struggle.”
That’s true. It’s also true, though, that this potential problem was pretty easy to spot before the season.
Gallinari and Beverley, both with multiple knee surgeries in their respective medical files, have combined to play more than 70 games in a season just twice since 2012. Teodosic, for all his preternatural passing gifts, was coming to the NBA’s 82-game grind at age 30 after a decade of shorter European seasons. That any of them would wind up on the shelf for significant stretches seemed more likely than not. That all three have hit the injury report simultaneously so early in the season is bum luck, for sure, but the sort for which the Clippers set themselves up.
That’s put an even greater onus on Griffin, who re-upped this summer on a five-year maximum-salaried contract to be the centerpiece of the Clippers franchise and the one from whom everyone on the roster takes their lead. But faced with having to create virtually everything for himself, and to set the table for a cast of characters who either aren’t yet ready for prime time or are still struggling to find their place on an overhauled roster, and to fill the leadership void left by Paul’s at-times-insufferable but always-integral drill-sergeant demeanor, Griffin hasn’t yet been able to chart a course for victory.
“We’ll come out and play well in stretches, but haven’t put it together,” Griffin said, according to Turner. “That’s on me. I have to do a better job of leading us and getting us in position to be better.”
The good news for the Clippers is that they’re not the only ones in the lower reaches of the Western playoff race struggling to stay afloat amid early-season woes. The Utah Jazz are playing without linchpin center Rudy Gobert and trying to figure out how to alchemize bricks into buckets. The Denver Nuggets just lost their top free-agent addition, All-Star center Paul Millsap, for what could be three months, which could be absolutely devastating for a team that seemed to be hitting its stride.
The Memphis Grizzlies don’t know when they’ll get point guard Mike Conley back from his left heel and Achilles tendinitis issues. The Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t yet gotten Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony working from the same playbook. The West’s current No. 8 seed, the Los Angeles Lakers, still fields a point guard who can’t shoot and whose father seems seconds away from starting a coaching controversy, exacerbating an international incident, or both.
There’s room and time, then, for the Clippers to get back on track without falling too far away from the pack.
“We have to put together 48 minutes rather than playing in spurts,” Griffin said after the Knicks loss. “We know as a team that this is not going to be the end.”
The Clippers won’t get to start appreciating the silver lining of their opponents’ injuries, though, until they can escape the dark cloud hanging over them.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley will miss the rest of the season, league sources tell ESPN. His surgery required a repair of a microfracture and meniscus injury to his right knee.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 22, 2017
The microfracture recovery process is expected to take nine months, leaving Beverley with the expectation of a full recovery to return next season.
The hope that things would start to turn around with the return of Beverley — a bulldog defender, tone-setter, ball-mover and secondary playmaker who might lighten Griffin’s load, one in which the Clips have been nearly 11 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s off the floor — just went out the window. Until Gallinari and Teodosic can come back and hit their strides, this is what the Clippers have: two All-Star-caliber bigs, a microwave scorer in Williams whose defense opponents will target every chance they get, a bunch of eighth men acting as if, and a load of questions.
Griffin says they know, as a team, that this isn’t the end. Barring a drastic change, though, it sure looks like it might be the beginning of one.
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