Steve was nice enough to get in touch with us about the game Monday night. In addition, he had some excellent insights. I feel smarter. Read below to feel smarter, too!
Tobo: The Clippers, like the Mavericks, have had a lot of ups and downs this year. What are they doing when they're having success, and what are they not doing when it's not working?
Steve: I wish I had some searingly insightful and brilliantly strategic answer for this question, but I don't. There seem to be many factors, but statistically speaking, the really big difference is outside shooting. With Blake Griffin passing out of double teams and Chris Paul playing drive and kick, the Clippers win when they're hitting from the perimeter and they lose when they're not. It's a little too simplistic to blame it all on the injury to Chauncey Billups, since he wasn't hitting a great percentage even when he was playing. But the rest of the perimeter players for the Clippers just went ice cold for a time. Former Mav Caron Butler is the best example of this trend -- he's shooting 43% in Clipper victories, 36% in losses. And because Butler's shooting woes have come in the second half of the season, that's when the Clippers have struggled the most -- he shot 43% before the All-Star break, 35% since. The Clippers have now won five straight -- guess what? Butler is shooting 50% in those five. It goes beyond Butler as well. Mo Williams (who's currently hurt and will miss the Mavs game) is another Clippers who was red hot when the team was playing its best ball in January (53%) and then cooled way off in February (35%).
There might be a common explanation for this problem -- tired legs. The Clippers had the most leisurely schedule of any NBA team at the start of their season, and really through the end of January. At that lighter workload, the Clippers shooters had fresh legs and were hitting shots. But the schedule had to catch up to them at some point, and when it did, the shots stopped falling. A week ago when the Clippers lost three straight for the first time all season, the losses came during a road back-to-back-to-back at the conclusion of an inhumane stretch of 9 games in 12 days. That pace might explain some other issues for the Clippers during their malaise -- in particular their lack of energy on defense and some terrible lapses of concentration. It's impossible to gauge precisely how much of an effect the compressed post-lockout schedule has on a team -- but it obviously has some effect.
The good news, if I'm right about the tired legs theory, is that the Clippers schedule has now caught up to the rest of the league, and they have more or less the same workload as their rivals down the stretch, though they do play 9 of the last 14 on the road.
Tobo: What do the Clippers specifically have to do if they're going to beat the Mavs?
Steve: The key to this game may be Shawn Marion on Chris Paul. When the Mavs beat the Clippers in Dallas in February, Paul had 16 points and 9 assists -- a fine game, but the Clippers don't tend to beat good teams unless Paul carries them. He only took 10 shots and committed 5 turnovers in that game, in large part because of the defense of Marion, a truly remarkable defender at age 33. If Paul can find a little more daylight against Marion (with the Clippers setting better picks and getting into transition more) it will make a big difference.
One thing I remember from the first meeting was Vince Carter and Delonte West posting up the Clippers small shooting guards. The addition of Nick Young to the lineup may help there. Rick Carlisle likes to exploit mismatches on offense, and back in February he didn't even have to do anything to create them -- they were there whenever the Mavs had size at the two. Hopefully the Clippers will do a better job in the matchups with Young this time around. The absence of Mo Williams will hurt the Clippers some on offense, but it probably helps them on defense against a team like Dallas.
Oh, and L.A. needs to make perimeter shots (see answer 1).
Tobo: Last year at this time,a large number of commentators would probably have voted for Blake Griffin over Kevin Love as the most likely candidate for a breakout year from a young PF. Griffin's not having a bad season by any means, and he gets on sportscenter just as regularly, but while Love seems to have taken the next step Griffin's numbers are actually down across the board, except for FG%. Do you think it's his role on offense, the limitations of his game (i.e. no jumpshot), something else altogether, or should we just point out that Love's in his 4th season, that this is an insane stat-line for a 2nd year player and leave it at that?
Steve: People seem to want to use Kevin Love's season as an indictment of Blake Griffin -- i.e. Griffin's not that good, he's not even the best young power forward in the league. The problem with that argument is that it ignores just how ungodly good Love has been. To say that Love has been better than Griffin this season is not an insult to Griffin -- statistically speaking, Love is having one of the great seasons of all time.
With the possible exception of his rebounding where he's experienced a small drop from from 11.4 to 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes (all on the defensive glass, I should add), I would argue that Griffin hasn't really experienced a drop off from his rookie season. For one thing, he's playing fewer minutes, which is a good thing, so comparing his per game numbers is a little misleading. The simple fact is, this is a better Clippers team that is less reliant on Griffin. Last season, it was Griffin and Eric Gordon carrying the entire workload -- and Gordon was hurt for a good part of the year. There are more scoring options for the Clippers this season, and consequently Griffin is shooting less. He's also hitting a better percentage, as you point out. In fact, among players scoring at least 15 points per game, Griffin is fourth in field goal percentage, first among non-centers. That's a major improvement in efficiency from his rookie season. (Unfortunately, his terrible free throw shooting really hurts his overall efficiency -- when he improves there, people will start to notice what an efficient scorer he is.)
There's no question that Griffin has lots of areas where he needs to improve. His perimeter shot is a work in progress (though it is much better, particularly when he catches and shoots without overthinking things), he has no go-to post move, and of course there's the aforementioned free throw shooting. To say nothing of the defensive end. But Griffin is in his second season and just turned 23. Go back and look at Love's numbers from his second season. Blake Griffin has been absurdly good this season -- Kevin Love has just been better, and that's OK.
Tobo: Most important player for the Clippers success?
Steve: Chris Paul. Without question. I could try to throw out a cute, unexpected answer -- like Chauncey Billups (the Clippers are 7-0 with Billups on the bench since he returned to L.A. following his Achilles surgery, and his locker room influence is a real factor for the team), but Paul is just too big. The Clippers don't play good enough defense at this point to put teams away consistently, and Blake Griffin is not a good option in the fourth quarter of a close game, because post players are harder to get free when defenses clamp down and because he's such a poor foul shooter. Paul simply has to win close games for the Clippers. And as it happens, he's pretty good at that.
Tobo: Who do you want to play in the first round?
Steve: Who do I want to play? The Charlotte Bobcats. Unfortunately, league rules (not to mention mathematics) preclude that.
As a long time Clippers fan, I am probably way too concerned with history -- but match ups with teams like the Mavericks or the Spurs or the Lakers scare the bejeesus out of me. If you look at the Clippers' record against those teams over the past decade or so, it's just dismal. I know, I know, different Clippers team, I'm being stupid and superstitious. But I can't get past it -- just seeing those uniforms on the other team will spook me, even though I think the Clipper match up pretty well with the Mavs on paper. Remember, even if it's a different Clippers team, it's still Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant -- those guys don't expect to lose to the Clippers and somehow I think they'll be extra-motivated to make sure it doesn't happen.
The Clippers are 2-0 against the Grizzlies, and I think there's good reason for that. The Grizz are SO dependent on generating turnovers to be successful that if you can take care of the ball and limit their easy baskets off turnovers you can really take a lot of bite out of their attack. And the Clippers are among the best in the league at taking care of the ball, as you might expect a Chris Paul team to be. So even though the Grizzlies look scary in general with Zach Randolph returning to an already pretty good team, I think the Clippers would have a very good chance against them in a seven game series.
If the Clippers can catch the Lakers and hold off the Mavs and climb into a third seed, they might conceivably see either the Nuggets or the Rockets in the first round. Those would be favorable first round opponents as well, as I think their lack of a go to scorer will hurt those teams when it comes to playoff level basketball.