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Clippers Vulnerable Without Perimeter Stopper

A roller-coaster ride of a season for the Los Angeles Clippers ended on Thursday night with a 104-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6. After winning 57 games in the regular season and going to six games in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Clippers established themselves as an elite team. However, the jump from good to great is the toughest leap to make in the NBA and the loss to Thunder exposed some holes that will need to be addressed. 

As great as Chris Paul is on both sides of the ball, he’s got no answer for Russell Westbrook. At 6’0 190, he just doesn’t have the size for “Point Godzilla”, who absolutely destroyed him in their 1-on-1 matchup. Before a poor shooting performance in Game 6, Westbrook was averaging 30 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game in the series. He went 4-15 from on Thursday, but he still handed out 12 assists, attempted 12 free throws and got wherever he wanted to go on the court.

Westbrook is one of the biggest point guards and best athletes in the league - it’s almost unfair to ask Paul to guard him for 40 minutes. On the other end of the floor, the Thunder could put Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson on Paul at various points in the series, giving him a different look and allowing Westbrook to catch his breath. Oklahoma City has waves of long, athletic perimeter defenders they can throw at the other team - the Clippers only have Matt Barnes.

In this series, Barnes had to stick with Kevin Durant for the duration. Los Angeles really didn’t have anyone else who could guard the NBA MVP, apart from the inspired move of sticking Paul on him in Game 4. Everyone else in their perimeter rotation is either an offensive-minded player - JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison - or is just hopeless against elite athletes - Jared Dudley and Danny Granger. To win three playoff series in the West, you need two perimeter stoppers.

Let’s say the Clippers wound up on the other side of the bracket and had to face the San Antonio Spurs. Even if we assume that Paul can guard Tony Parker, which he can’t, who is JJ Redick and/or Jamal Crawford going to defend in crunch time? If you put them on Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs can space the floor and allow Leonard to brutalize them on the low block. Nor does either have much of a prayer of staying in front of Manu Ginobili, even at this stage in his career.

That was one of the main reasons they had so much trouble with the Golden State Warriors in the first round, even with Andrew Bogut sidelined and David Lee as their primary rim protector. There are just no easy covers in the trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. If they had faced the Houston Rockets, they would have had to stick a bad defender on James Harden or Chandler Parsons, since Paul isn’t tall enough to match-up with either. 

Redick has turned himself into a functional defender, but that isn’t going to cut it against some of the best basketball players in the world. At 6’5 190, he’s a relatively undersized SG without elite athleticism and he’s one of the only players in the league with a wingspan (6’4) shorter than his height. He tries hard, but he can’t contest shots, move his feet or hold ground in the low post against an elite SG. That’s not going to change as he moves to the wrong side of 30.

Crawford is a two-time Sixth Man of the Year winner and one of the most entertaining players in the sport, but he was never known as a defensive stopper in his prime, much less in his mid-30’s. They are both great offensive players who add different elements to the Clippers attack, but a team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin shouldn’t need great offense from the shooting guard position. An inability to score the basketball is not what killed them against the Thunder. 

Looking back on it, the player who could have really helped the Clippers in this series was Eric Bledsoe. He was moved to get a more traditional shooting guard in the starting line-up, but they might have wanted to try the Bledsoe-Paul combination before just giving up on it. Bledsoe is one of the only players in the NBA who can look Westbrook in the eye when it comes to pure athleticism and the Phoenix Suns proved you could play him big minutes in a two-PG line-up this season. 

If Oklahoma City could close games with Westbrook and Jackson, there’s no reason L.A. couldn’t have done the same with Bledsoe and Paul. At 6’1 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, Bledsoe plays much bigger than his size and could match up with the best SG’s in the West in a way that Reddick or Crawford can not. Doc Rivers brought in Redick to play the Ray Allen role, but Allen was a much more multi-dimensional player who could also defend and put the ball on the floor.

Redick’s statistics in the regular season - 15 points on 47% shooting - and the playoffs - 13 points on 46% shooting - were great, but it’s not about your statistics at the highest levels of the game. It’s about your skill-set, what you can bring to the floor and how you can match up with other elite teams. The Clippers aren’t going to beat the Thunder in the playoffs with Paul or Reddick guarding Westbrook - and neither Westbrook nor Paul are going anywhere. 

The good news is the solution may already be on their roster in the form of Reggie Bullock, the No. 25 pick in 2013. At 6’7 205 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who shot 44% from 3 as a junior at UNC. He isn’t a great ball-handler, but a team with Paul and Griffin in the starting line-up doesn’t need a high usage player at SG. If you have Barnes and Bullock on the perimeter and DeAndre Jordan upfront, you have three potential plus defenders next to Blake and CP3.

That’s how the Clippers need to build their team if they are going to reach the NBA Finals. All roads in the Western Conference go through Oklahoma City and San Antonio and a team with JJ Redick at SG is going to have a hard time matching up with either when the chips are down. When you are trying to win a title, you can’t focus on an individual player’s statistics, you have to look at your roster and how the match-ups will play out over four seven-game series.

Clippers Run Out Of Miracles

It was early in the second quarter of Game 6, and the Clippers had sprinted out to a 16-point lead over the Thunder.  Everything was going their way.  The Oklahoma City Thunder looked disorganized, playing as if resigned to a Game 7.  But one man didn’t like what he saw: Doc Rivers.  “I thought we came out with a lot of emotion to start the game, and I turned to one of my coaches and said, ‘I don’t know if I like this,’ Rivers recalled after the game.  “I was concerned they were going to hit the wall.”

Rivers was right.  The Clippers were never able to sustain the momentum of those first 15 minutes.  They spent the rest of the game waiting for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to take over, and eventually, after a slow start, they did.  In a rampaging performance, Durant flashed his MVP chops with 39 points (25 in the second half), 14 rebounds, and 5 assists, and the mercurial Westbrook capped off a wondrous series with a 10-point fourth quarter and 17 second-half points.   In the end, the Clippers ran out of gas, ran out of miracles, and finally, ran out of time, as the Thunder eliminated them, 104-98, moving on to the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

It was a depressingly familiar scenario for the Clippers, who have never made it out of the second round of the playoffs, and are now 0-6 when trailing a best-of-7 playoff series 3-2.  It was perhaps most depressing for Chris Paul, who’s yet to reach a conference finals in his nine years in the league.

"I just feel awful for him," Rivers said. "He's the spirit of our team. Right now, his spirit is broken."

After the Clippers’ epic meltdown at the end of Game 5, with Paul taking full responsibility for a series of crucial mistakes in the final minute, the script called for a huge bounce-back game for the Clippers’ floor leader.  But though he tallied 25 points and 11 assists, it was another uneven fourth-quarter for Paul, who committed two turnovers and was whistled for an offensive foul that negated a DeAndre Jordan dunk and blunted a final Clippers charge. Even before that, Paul’s shot was off all night, and he was never able to get control of the offense.  As great as he was in the regular season, the whispers that Paul does not come up big in the biggest games will only get louder.

"We have a really good team, a great team,” said Paul afterwards. “It's crazy. You play all season long, and the last few games, we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it's crazy that it's over."

But before you lament another Clippers season ending the way they usually do; before you point out that the Clippers advanced no further than they did two seasons ago with Vinnie Del Negro as coach, consider what they had to play through these last few weeks.  This was the most successful team in Clippers history, winning 57 games and the Pacific Division.   Doc Rivers brought a stability and leadership unmatched by previous regimes.  But this year’s playoffs will forever be tarnished by the ongoing Donald Sterling scandal, and while the players and Rivers refused to use it as an excuse, the emotional strain of playing through threats of boycotts, pressure by family and friends, and subsequent ill-timed interviews by the clueless Sterlings, both Donald and wife Shelly, clearly caught up to them.

"I don't think that was why we didn't win,” said Rivers. “I don't think we should use that as an excuse. We're a team in process. I believe we were good enough to win it this year. Oklahoma City told us we were not."

Game 6 certainly didn’t start that way.  With celebs like Rhianna and Oscar De La Hoya in attendance; with longtime Lakers fan Jack Nicholson courtside next to James Brooks, the Clippers came out of the gate showing no ill effects from their Game 5 collapse.  Blake Griffin scored early and often against nemesis Serge Ibaka,

Durant and Westbrook missed 11 of their first 12 shots, and when Westbrook went to the bench with two early fouls, the crowd roared, sensing a golden opportunity.

As it turned out, the Clippers had saved their best for that first quarter, and had little left to give thereafter.  Three consecutive treys by Durant, some on missed coverages by Clipper defenders, turned the game for good in the second quarter.   By halftime, with the Thunder within 8 at 50-42, despite Durant and Westbrook combining to shoot 4-16, there was an inevitable sense of what was coming.  In the third quarter, Westbrook broke through with 7 points and 7 assists, feeding the suddenly-hot Durant, who hit all five of his shots and scored 14 points.

And with unsung bigs Steven Adams and Nick Collison covering ably for Serge Ibaka’s injury, and with the Clippers’ normally reliable bench unable to get anything going, their spirit was finally broken.   Tied going into the fourth, the Thunder pulled away like racehorses with a 10-run.  Even down 11 with three minutes left, the Clippers summoned up the energy for one last heroic effort, using a 7-0 run to get within four at 97-93, but they couldn’t get hit the key shot or get a stop when they needed it.   In the end, there was no shame in losing to a superior team, but it was the lost opportunities of Game 5 that will haunt the Clips.

It’s gonna hurt for a while,” said a dejected Chris Paul after.  “We should’ve been here up 3-2, with a chance to close it out.  “It’s a long summer, I tell you that much.”

The hint of how bad a summer it could be began even before the game, when Donald Sterling’s lawyer, Maxwell M. Blecher, announced that the owner would not pay his $2.5 million fine, and that Sterling was prepared to fight the NBA’s attempt to remove him.  The players’ wish that Sterling be removed before the start of next season looks highly unlikely, given that the protracted legal battle that’s ahead.

And if that’s the case – what then?  Does Doc Rivers walk away?  Will the current players be pressured not to wear the Clippers uniform while Sterling is still in power?  Will any free agent even consider joining them? 

"Like I've said before, I'm under contract," Rivers said. "I have no plans on going anywhere, as far as I know."

Unfortunately for the Clippers, neither does Sterling.   Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride ahead.

The Jackson-Barnes Play: Deconstructing The Rule

Zach Harper of CBS Sports gives a thorough accounting of the rules and arguments surrounding the controversy that arose after the encounter between Reggie Jackson and Matt Barnes in the closing seconds of Game 5 on Tuesday. But the article reaches the wrong conclusion that the referees’ decision appears to be correct.

The rulebook states:

"If a player has his hand in contact with the ball and an opponent hits the hand causing the ball to go out-of-bounds, the team whose player had his hand on the ball will retain possession."

The most reasonable interpretation is that the rule is referring to the one, same hand of the offensive player – the one hit by the defensive player. The text initially describes "his hand," then uses the definite article to refer to "the hand," so we can safely infer that the latter is simply referencing the former. There is no mention of the offensive player's other hand, which in this case would be Jackson's right hand – the hand that seemed to touch the ball last. The theory Harper cites attempts to use the fact that Jackson's right hand was touching the ball when his left hand was slapped in order to shoehorn the facts to squeeze in under the rule's coverage.

But the applicability of the rule is more straightforward than imagined: It is to address situations where the the defensive player's slap of the offensive player's hand, which is treated as part of the ball, and the release of the ball from that same hand, both occur simultaneously before the ball immediately goes out of bounds.

In other words, in situations where one player clearly touched the ball last (and the consensus seems to be that Jackson did), the other team should always get the ball. That is the overarching rule.

The interpretation discussed by Harper essentially relies on an expansive definition of the word "causing" in the rule text that reads "hits the hand causing the ball to go out-of-bounds." In common conversational usage, Barnes' contact did cause – i.e., set in motion actions that led to – the ball sailing out of bounds, but not before it touched Jackson's right hand. The rule concerns a direct causal reaction where contact provides sufficient force to drive the ball straight out of bounds, without any intervening event.

Taking this broad definition of "causing" to its logical extreme reveals that it is faulty. What if, after leaving Jackson's right hand, the ball had instead bounced off Russell Westbrook's hand, then trickled out of bounds? Would it still be Thunder ball? Barnes' slap still would have caused, generally speaking, the ball to go out of bounds. What if it had ping-ponged back and forth among Jackson, Westbrook and Kevin Durant before ricocheting out of bounds? Would that still be Thunder ball?

The point being, the latter two scenarios are not distinguishable from the actual scenario that played out Tuesday night if we adopt such a liberal interpretation of the rule's meaning, despite producing what would be an illogical result that no referee could convincingly justify.

Assuming there was clear video evidence that Jackson’s right hand touched the ball last, the rulebook seems to dictate that the ball be awarded to the Clippers.

Editor's Note:  Late Wednesday, the NBA issued a statement that the referees properly awarded the ball to the Thunder because video replays did not offer a sufficient basis to overturn the original call: "In order to reverse the call made on the court, there has to be ‘clear and conclusive’ evidence. Since no replay provided such evidence, the play correctly stood as called with the Thunder retaining possession.”  In affirming the referees' decision, the NBA did not mention the alternative interpretation of the rulebook discussed in the CBS Sports story.

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