Clippers’ Defense Flourishing As Changes Pay Off
LOS ANGELES – The Clippers didn’t like how many open 3-pointers they allowed last season and saw DeAndre Jordan away from the basket too often guarding the pick-and-roll, so they changed the scheme.
And, much like any change, the defensive switches needed time.
“For the guys that have been here, it was an adjustment,” said J.J. Redick.
Before the Clippers got to where they are now, owning the NBA’s top defense the last 15 games allowing just 97.2 points per 100 possessions during the stretch, they had to experience understandable growing pains.
When the Clippers found themselves in the bottom half of the league defensively after November, allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions with a 10-8 record, head coach Doc Rivers stressed how the new defense would be fine. It just needed time.
By the end of December, some slight improvements could be seen, with the Clippers working their way into the top half of the league defensively. Rivers said he thought the defense started to shift for the better a couple weeks prior to Blake Griffin’s injury, at some point in early to mid-December.
The numbers showed a minimal improvement, allowing 101.3 points per 100 possessions while improving their record to 21-13.
Again, Rivers preached patience. They weren’t going to revert to the old schemes or do anything differently. He believed, eventually, the new defense would work.
“Defense is confidence, too,” Rivers said. “I think because we made the changes, what I underestimated is the guys who were already here. I thought the new guys would struggle, where I thought the guys who have been here, even though it was new, because it was us, I thought they’d trust it. I don’t think that was the case.”
Rivers said he could tell the veterans were uncomfortable early with the switches. J.J. Redick can attest to that.
“Trusting a new scheme, I think, is different,” Redick said. “I also think, ultimately, defense is a team thing, but it’s also an individual thing in the sense that you have to take ownership of doing your job. I do sense that we have a greater focus on that side of things, in terms of just like, ‘All right, this is what I’m supposed to do in these scenarios and this is what I’m supposed to do game plan wise.”
As Rivers predicted, with time came more sustained success. Slowly, everything started to click.
It helped adding Luc Mbah a Moute, who’s allowing the fewest points per possession in isolation among all NBA players with at least 45 defensive possessions, to the starting lineup. The Clippers are 31-12 with Mbah a Moute starting, something he’s done consistently prior to an eyelid laceration.
Mbah a Moute said too often the Clippers let the offense dictate the defensive play early in the season.
“If you want to be a great team, you can never do that,” Mbah a Moute said. “You’ve got to always count on your defense, and I feel like sometimes we wouldn’t score or the game wouldn’t go our way, and it would affect our defense.”
That’s no longer the case.
By the end of January, the Clippers soared to the top 10 in defensive rating, allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions while getting better offensively, scoring 106.1 points per 100 possessions. Mbah a Moute helped the starters, while Austin Rivers continued to draw praise defensively with the backups.
A 32-16 record resulted, which has now grown to a 40-20 record as the Clippers prepare to host the Hawks.
For the season, the Clippers are allowing just 100.4 points per 100 possessions while scoring 106.4 points per 100 possessions, putting them in the top seven in offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating.
In the last 15 games, the Clippers are allowing just 97.2 points per 100 possessions – good for the top mark in the league – and 97.7 points per game.
“We made a lot of changes,” Rivers said. “I just think it took a while to take hold.”
After every Clippers victory, Chris Paul credits the defense. And, conversely, he points to the lapses on that side of the ball in losses.
Redick said it’s clear defensive consistency is the formula to winning.
At the beginning of the year, Redick admitted the defensive adjustments were tough – mainly “icing” or “downing” on pick-and-rolls, forcing the ball-handler to head to the sideline rather than showing on screens, which they’d done previously.
Redick said the guards and bigs are getting on the same page more steadily and figuring out their defensive rhythm.
The defense can still vary depending on the opponent and whether or not the opposing big can shoot, but the goal remains to force teams into contested mid-range twos, rather than open threes and layups.
“If you drop the big and the guard goes over the screen, there’s no layup,” Redick explained, “and as long as it’s a non-shooting big, you’re essentially giving contested 15-footers. That took a while, but it’s been good.”
The Clippers are holding opponents to 43.4 percent shooting this season – the best mark in franchise history – while forcing them to shoot 1.3 fewer 3-pointers per game this year than last year.
As the Clippers continue rising in the defensive rankings, even while playing shorthanded, there’s one trait Rivers said can and should continue to get better on that side of the ball.
“Still trust,” Rivers said. “Our defense, obviously the numbers tells you it’s light years from where it was early in the year, but I still think we still have a trust barrier to get over the next phase. They now know we can be a good defensive team, but I think where we’ve got to get to is when things aren’t going well, they still know we’re a good defensive team.”