Clippers going for loose ball

Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro wants to use zone defense as a weapon not a crutch.

The 3-2 matchup zone the Clippers have employed more and more in the last few weeks has been born out of both necessity and strategy.

Injuries, including nagging calf problems for both Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe recently and a strained right groin for Chauncey Billups, have limited minutes and rotations. A problematic 3-point defense, which has allowed opponents to shoot an average of 46% in the Clippers’ 26 losses this season, has forced them to reassess their coverages. And a perceived lack of consistent intensity and aggressiveness has given pause to their more common man-to-man scheme.

Del Negro says he would prefer to mix in the zone rather than use it as a primary set, even though it has been effective in overcoming large deficits to the Thunder and Pacers in the last month by putting Matt Barnes at the top of it with a combination of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford or Chris Paul on the wings and Blake Griffin, Lamar Odom, DeAndre Jordan or Ryan Hollins roaming the blocks on either side of the paint.

“If we can use it as a weapon, I don’t like to fall back on it,” Del Negro said.

For him, it’s about establishing a defensive identity in man-to-man and then being able to show the zone in small doses.

“I like to have the right energy and intensity in our coverages early on to see how effective we are,” Del Negro added. “And if we can use that as a weapon whether that’s a side out of bounds, after a timeout, a short clock, what have you. I think we have a few guys that understand it a little bit and have played a little in the past with other teams that we’re trying to use it as an advantage.”

Hollins is one of those players who had seen it before, when he was a member of the Celtics and they used it through portions of games towards the end of last season. He is of the belief that the zone can be effective, again, when utilized properly.

He said the coaching staff put together a “great game plan” Monday in the final period to help slice a 24-point deficit to one against Indiana. But at the same time, it really comes down “scrapping” as Hollins put it, regardless of the defensive look. That happened, according Hollins, on Wednesday.

“I think we kind of got out of our lull and we had to learn the pace that we play at defensively and trust each other,” he said after Clippers’ 126-101 win over the Suns. “I thought D.J. (Jordan) really did a good job out there communicating tonight. Chris really got into the ball and he understands, he’s probably got the toughest job out there. He runs our offense and he comes back he’s got to guard a guy 94 feet or what not.”

 Communication and trust have been two elements of the Clippers’ overall defensive effort that have wavered from time to time. When they are at their best, the group is a ball-hawking menace. They score a league-high 19.9 points off turnovers and have tallied a record of 34-14 when they force at least 15 turnovers by their opponent. But they’ve only done that seven times in the last 16 games, losing three of those.

“There’s a lot of trust factor in both [defenses] and obviously probably more in man-to-man, but we’ve had our time where we were very good defensively and lately we’ve slipped a little bit and that’s an area that’s probably the biggest concern,” Del Negro said. “We’ve scored a lot off our defense, but if you look we’ve done some things pretty well statistically as well: forcing turnovers, number one in steals. We have to be active on the defensive end and we’re not always consistent and that’s probably the most alarming thing. We’re not as consistent as we were early in the season and hopefully here at the end we can get back to being a little bit better in a few areas but obviously at that end of the floor.”

In short, the Clippers have dropped from the No. 5 team in the league in defensive efficiency (98.7 points per 100 possessions) through Jan. 31. to No. 21 in the league (104.9) since. Barnes, who is one of the more well-regarded defensive players on the Clippers’ roster, has called that collapse “embarrassing.”

They have allowed 100 points or more in five of their last six games. And that’s where the zone comes in.

 “You’re trying to change the momentum of [the game] whether you’re changing your coverage or trapping pick and rolls or where ever you’re at,” Del Negro said. “I also think that because of some of the injuries we’ve had and some of the foul trouble that we’ve gotten into early in games, it’s been able to help us through some tough stretches. Is it a constant that I want to do? No, not at all.”

Asked what specifically he was unhappy with defensively, Del Negro said, “I’m not pleased with our weak side. The other night [against the Pacers] it seemed like you could almost drive a truck down the middle of the lane. We’ve talked about that, we’ve watched film, we’ve worked on it. It’s just about the concentration level and the mental toughness and the long season and going through it.

“We’re not going to make excuses. We have to play better. Guys know what they need to do. It comes down to energy, it comes down to effort and the mental toughness part. It’s a long season and we’re trying to get back some of the swagger and energy we had early on and we have to do that with our defense.”

Barnes and Griffin both agreed with Del Negro and it was a positive sign in the third quarter against the Suns Wednesday that the defense ramped up and got the team going in transition, leading to nine fast-break points and 13 points off turnovers in a 38-point period.

“I think that if we play with the right energy we’re a hard team to beat,” Barnes said.

Griffin added: “Being aggressive, playing defense like we are capable of playing defense and not settling for just beating a team. We really want to be on our rotations and take care of everything we have to do and accomplish our game plan every single game.”

That game plan will likely include the zone whether it’s to capitalize on their intensity or help get it back.