Coup's Takeaways: Clippers Play Their Counters, Pull Away In Second Half

1. It’s only fitting that years after Erik Spoelstra’s zone was born against the Clippers on a shorthanded night, the zone would be the story of the night once again with Miami missing much of their perimeter talent.

Regardless of the names on the jerseys or the location of the arena, this was probably the easiest game on the schedule to peg as a night for zone given LA’s vast array of perimeter talent. So it wasn’t a surprise to see it early and often in what was otherwise the most pure representation of how Miami finds success with a makeshift rotation, particularly in the first quarter. The threes – Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love all taking advantage of Ivica Zubac hanging back in the paint – were falling, they were getting to the line and, most important, they were forcing turnovers. Another double digit first quarter lead, Miami’s 14th of the season, as the Clippers temporarily accomplished the rare feat of being down 14 in the second quarter despite shooting 55 percent, turnovers hampering their attempt total while poor decisions, like Russell Westbrook trying to take Bam Adebayo off the dribble, sinking LA’s bench unit.

Just as soon as it was notable how weird the game was getting, at least on paper, the Clippers cleaned things up behind a Kawhi Leonard-led (24 points on 19 shots) unit. That 14-point deficit soon shrunk to seven, five and eventually a Clippers lead as they worked the ball around for open corner threes. LA led by one at the half, but they had a 73.6 effective field-goal percentage to Miami’s 52.3. You don’t see that every day.

Clippers by 10 about five minutes into the third as they kept the efficiency rolling. Adebayo was doing what he could saving possessions from the shot clock, working his way to the line again and again against LA’s switches, but nearly any miss was answered with an LA score as Miami quickly got out of their man-to-man only for Paul George (23 points on 14 shots) to hit a couple of threes against the zone. For as well as the Clippers were scoring, Miami hung around in striking distance, working in the margins as usual with clever hit-ahead passes while working the offensive glass. Credit Russell Westbrook for stealing two over-the-top passes meant for Kevin Love while front after a switch, steals the HEAT normally don’t give up, as the Clippers again pushed ahead by double digits.

Even with a couple more grind-it-out scores, the start of the fourth wasn’t pretty. LA’s elite defenders kept sitting on Miami’s interior passes and the HEAT found themselves fighting the clock as the switches got more and more aggressive, shooters finding themselves retreating against sudden bursts of pressure. Clippers by 16 with 8:40 to play, their effective field-goal percentage still hovering around 70, but even then Miami quickly scored four straight, working the post flashes and offensive glass. Spoelstra went to his all-offense lineup with shooters around Adebayo to try and keep up, there just weren’t enough threes on that end or stops on the other to carry any real momentum.

Benches emptied with about two minutes to play as the Clippers (14-of-29 from three) take this one, 121-104, with an Offensive Rating of 127.4. As good as Miami is shorthanded, sometimes talent just wins out, and now the HEAT say in Los Angeles for a couple days to face the Lakers.

2. The most interesting games Miami plays in a given regular season tend to be against switching teams. We know they have the knowledge, skills and knowhow to handle drop coverage at this point, but switching is the coverage that has most regularly jammed them up over the past five years – especially when they don’t have Jimmy Butler, one of Miami’s “switch killers” as Spoelstra calls him.

They did have their other one, though, in Adebayo and he did all he could to give the HEAT a chance. Nobody is going to blink twice at 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting, but another night with 13 free-throw attempts are worth a pause and notation as Adebayo forced the issue, going right at Ivica Zubac early on and establishing position – both Kevin Love and Jaime Jaquez Jr. did a little of the same as well – against smaller defenders on the switch. The Clippers countered not by going away from the switching, but by overplaying those entry passes, stealing or deflecting more and more of them as the second half wore on. Miami’s 36 second-half points are a credit to LA’s ability to play and defend small, with even guys like James Harden being underrated hold-up defenders in the post.

The greater cost of the switching to Miami’s offense was that it all but eliminated the cleaner three-point looks after they came so easy against the drop early on. With defenders almost blitz-switching on Herro and Duncan Robinson to eliminate even the possibility of a clean look around a screen, Miami had only taken 28 threes before they fell behind by 20 midway through the fourth – well below their usual strategic rate when missing Butler and not the volume you would expect given the number of shooters Spoelstra was using to juice the offense.

Adebayo and Miami had all the right ideas for how to attack the switches, the Clippers just had the defensive length and awareness to not have to pay the cost on their schematic choices.

3. It’s one thing to use a zone, it’s an entirely different matter to use a zone like the HEAT use a zone. Forget about your garden variety 2-3, Spoelstra has always dipped deep into his bag of paints of oils for artistic flourishes depending on the opponent of the evening.

Tonight, the zone was anything but static. At times it would look like a 1-2-2, at times a 2-3, at others a 1-3-1, defenders consistently filling the gaps one pass away to try and force the Clippers away from the middle of the floor and into around-the-horn passing. It was interesting then, that LA was generally willing to oblige. They rarely put a player at the nail, the softest part of the zone, and were happy to work their way in from the wings against matchups they found advantageous, either drawing the other side of the zone before working the ball into the corners, or simply taking the first jumper available one-pass away.

Official numbers for the zone defense won’t be available until later but given LA’s shooting percentages they won’t fare much better than the man-to-man. When a team shoots this well from three, the numbers will be what they are. The larger point, though, is that Spoelstra again had a very specific alternative look ready to go when he knew he would be lacking many of his perimeter defenders and even though it didn’t work out against an offensive juggernaut, the HEAT went down putting all their cards on the table.