Will Chris Paul and the Clippers Get Past Round One?
You could almost FEEL the pressure mounting after Game One. Entering Game Two it was palpable; crushing, and that was just watching on television as an outsider. The weight of more than the season was on the shoulders of Chris Paul. It was the weight of a franchise. It was the weight of all the promise that began five years ago when the Clippers emerged from the Lakers long shadow to become the premier team in LaLa Land and a legitimate marquee attraction – and more importantly, a legitimate NBA Title Contender.
Of course, Paul responded with 21 points, 10 assists and delivered a series-tying victory.
It hasn’t been an easy few seasons in Los Angeles. A funny thing happened on the way to (or nearby the old Los Angeles) Forum and the intended championship destiny. A turned ankle here. An ACL sprain there. And of course, the occasional face-shattering punch to a trainer’s face (hey man, accidents happen!) All of a sudden, the seemingly wide open window was closing and closing alarmingly fast.
Another thing happened. The Golden State Warriors.
The Clippers felt confident they could vanquish the Spurs. After all, they had done so marvelously in 2015 and looked poised to give the Dubs the Western Conference Finals we were all hoping for, but a 3-1 lead turned into a soul-crushing 4-3 series loss to the Rockets and things have been fraught ever since. Couple their injuries with the emergence of the best three-year regular season window in NBA history, and the Clippers went from frontrunner to sometimes-forgotten afterthought.
Today, the Clippers sit on a dangerous precipice. With the series tied 2-2 with the Jazz and Blake Griffin once again ending his postseason early due to injury, the Clips are seriously looking the end square in the face. As in, THE END of everything in the Paul/Griffin/Jordan/Doc Era. It is a daunting amount of pressure for any team to handle. And there is only one reason why I think the Clippers will still somehow emerge.
#1. Veteran Savvy
Sure, his counterpart George Hill is no rook either, but Paul suddenly has clear senior status among NBA elite point guards. Don’t let that senior status fool you, however – he may be a nine time All-Star, Eight Time All-NBA Player, and Eight Time All-Defense Team member, but he is still just 31 years old and more importantly, finally healthy. Paul will certainly be asked to do a LOT now that Blake Griffin is out for the rest of the postseason (not that it will last too much longer with Golden State looming, but that’s another article for another day), but he is more than capable.
Paul was spectacular in Game Three after Griffin went down with the injury, scoring 34 points and tallying 10 assists in a winning effort. The Clippers dropped Game Four, but that’s a game they are almost supposed to lose. This series was never going to be easy, even with Griffin, but without him a Game Four loss on the road was pretty predictable. With a few days to absorb and prepare for the loss of Griffin, look for the Clippers to play a more open, free-flowing, perimeter oriented game centered around the playmaking and scoring of Chris Paul. Even in the losing effort, Paul had 27 and 12.
George Hill is known primarily for his defense and leadership, but neither are doing much to slow Chris Paul much this series. With so much expectation on Paul’s shoulders, I expect him to be massive in Game Five and to dig deep into his veteran bag of tricks to do whatever it takes to get the win.
It’s easy to get caught up in the flash and promise of the young up and coming NBA team, but don’t forget how this league generally works; over the last thirty years nearly every legit NBA title contender has advanced in stages over the span of several years (Golden State 2015 being the real lone exception). Blake Griffin being out will give the Jazz some confidence, but aside from Joe Johnson and George Hill, this is a new level of competition for most of the Jazz’s core. Most are making their very first playoff appearances and will find the difference in intensity from Games One and Two to Games Five and Six pretty jarring.
#2. Paul Thrives in BIG Games
Paul’s Game Seven against the Spurs wasn’t statistically mesmerizing, but his control over the pace and tempo and willingness to make BIG plays down the stretch certainly were. He went for 23 points and eight assists to lead the Clippers past their long-time nemesis and was drained; physically and emotionally, to the point of tears after the game. He dished out 15 assists in a Game Six season-saving win AT San Antonio. It will likely take another similarly gut-wrenching effort this series, but I think Paul has one more in him. Last year was a disaster with BOTH he and Griffin getting hurt in the series, so that one you can throw 2016 out, but the year prior, 2014, was more of the same from Paul – getting bigger and better as the series wore on and became more pressure-packed. In their 2014 Game Seven win over Golden State, Paul tallied 19 points and 14 assists and willed the Clippers to the next round.
Chris Paul has had a knack for the big moments on the brightest stages since high school where he famously dropped 61 points to celebrate the life of his grandfather by scoring one point for every year of his tragically short life.
There is no doubt the future of the Clippers organization (and likely the employment of his coach) lie completely in the hands of Paul. Just the way he likes it. Look for him to completely OWN Games Five and Seven (if necessary)
#3 Wide Open Spaces
The spread-out offense is actually a nice formula for the style and talent on the current Clippers roster. The Clippers can simply play Marreese Speights and Paul Pierce at the 4 position and widen the court. They can let DeAndre Jordan be the lone post presence, not a big deal, and just play the style of basketball that has been so successful for Boston, Houston, and of course, Golden State. A wider-open spacing and tempo also benefits JJ Reddick, who’s hot shooting alone can keep the Clippers in tight ballgames.
Chris Paul is the perfect maestro to orchestrate this style of game plan. And when times get tight and some interior offense is needed, the Clippers put Paul into a high pick and roll with DeAndre Jordan like they did in Game Three, and make the Jazz choose; get blistered by Chris Paul eighteen to twenty four foot jump shots, or let DeAndre show everyone his next dunk-face. Either way, the Clippers are likely successful.
Spacing the floor plays up another potential advantage for the Clippers as well; Derrick Favors struggles to cover the arc at the four position, and without Rudy Gobert, this pulls the best rebounder out of the paint frequently, allowing for some DeAndre Jordan put back opportunities. Jordan is shooting 69.7% in this series and led the NBA with a ridiculous 71.4% shooting (second was Gobert at 66.1%). That is because all of Jordan’s shots are put backs and dunks. With his time now being largely devoted to isolation pick and rolls with Chris Paul and roaming the paint while the Clippers four snipers spread out the Jazz defenders and lure away their bigs, that number could actually IMPROVE.
#4 CP3 Is The Engine, Not Blake
Both Paul and Griffin have suffered through rashes of injuries the last four or five years. But the team has responded far differently to their respective absences. Without Blake, the Clippers have been anywhere between a little worse and a little better. All in all, they have survived nicely. It is when Chris Paul goes out that the wheels come off the Clippers bus.
Five Thirty Eight did an interesting graphic of the Clippers success/failure with one or more of the Big Three on/off the court since 2011 and found some pretty remarkable things. When Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were on the court together without DeAndre Jordan, they were just +3 per 100 possessions. When Chris Paul was on the court without Blake but DID have DeAndre, they were +10.2 per 100 possessions.
When Blake was on the court without Chris Paul but did have DeAndre Jordan, they were +5.5, a pretty respectable number, and when he was alone without either, the Clippers were a miserable -10.2. DeAndre alone, also struggled at -10.4 per 100 possessions.
The best part? Chris Paul BY HIMSELF, without EITHER was the best statistical breakdown of ANY COMBO, at a staggering +16.4 per 100 possessions. This is because Chris Paul, when healthy, is not a Point Guard, he is a Point GOD. The easiest math is this:
And with SO MUCH on the line, don’t think he won’t see 38 to 40 minutes if they need him to in order to advance.
The easy narrative is “No Blake, No Hope” or “Here we go again, Curse of the Clippers!” but I am sticking with the veterans as long as Chris Paul is on the floor. The Clippers are close to even money for the series (-120 at Bovada) in most books, which looks like a nice wagering line when you look more closely at HOW the Clippers really function at their highest.