The Los Angeles Clippers have not tried particularly hard during the regular season but the team is incredibly well balanced and is seemingly built for the post-season. LA chose to forgo regular season success in favour of planning and preparing for the play-offs. Kawhi Leonard has been rested during the season and injured players have been brought back in a slow, cautious manner. However, regular season record is not always an indicator of winning when it matters. The Clippers’ roster building and high-level coaching make Los Angeles one of the teams that is primed for a deep post-season.
Los Angeles’ title run starts and end with the two players who they acquired in the summer in a blockbuster trade. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are two sons of Los Angeles, two players who chose to team up and bring a championship to a fanbase which has suffered through years of mismanagement and play-off heartbreak. Winning a championship will mean different things for each player, a championship will erase the criticism that Paul George does not perform in the play-offs. Since the introduction of ‘Playoff P’, George has been bounced in the first-round consecutively while turning in embarrassing, inefficient performances. For Leonard, a third Larry O’B trophy is a pure legacy play. There are very few players who have won three titles with three different teams and there are even fewer players who have been able to do this as the alpha dog on his team. Another title for Leonard would elevate him into the conversation for being the best two-way player history in NBA history, the type of conversation which is populated by players like Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Los Angeles is arguably the hardest match-up for the Thunder, their length and defensive versatility can shut down the Thunder’s ability to create offence and force Bully Donovan away from his best lineups. While facing the Clippers has become a less probable possibility, it is still possible for the Thunder to play the Clippers if Oklahoma City get out of the first round. It is important for Oklahoma City to think carefully about solutions to the issues presented by the Clippers’ style of basketball. Los Angeles is a versatile, veteran team who does not have many weaknesses but there are a few areas that the Thunder can try to use to their advantage.
When the Clippers were assembled in July of last year, the team acquired two top tier defensive players to pair with the talent already on the roster. The combination of George, Beverley and Leonard is arguably the best perimeter defence in the league as each player is a former All-Defensive player. The reason why this particular lineup decision makes so much sense in a post-season setting is that there is no easy player to target, every man can hold their own on defence and direct the attacking player towards an extremely talented help defender. The attacking player’s options become limited, they can either take a contested shot or dish off to a team-mate. In both examples, the Clippers achieve their ideal result on the possession, no easy look is available for the opposing team.
The other benefit of having three pitbulls on the court is that the Clippers have players with distinct defensive styles that can be used on a player to distract and disorientate them. Beverley is a pest who will hound the ball ninety four feet and engage in psychological warfare to mentally wear down his opponent, that type of coverage can cause unforced errors from the opposing team. George is a smooth interceptor who picks off passes like a smooth ball playing centre back before streaking out in transition, he is different from Beverley as he uses his length to make highlight-worthy interceptions that put the attacking teams on the defensive. As a defender, Kawhi is a complete destroyer. He can lock down the other team’s best player for possessions at a time by using his length and court awareness. The ability to throw three different coverages is unusual and will force the opposing player to over-think their decisions rather than simply playing in rhythm.
The key for the Thunder will be to work out how to get scoring against a Clippers’ team that is strong in terms of perimeter defence. There is not an easy solution but it does feel like Steven Adams is a good option in terms of disrupting the Clippers’ defence while efficiently creating offence for the Thunder. Adams’ primary match-ups will all be smaller than him with the exception of Ivica Zubac, a young talented rim protector. It would make sense to exploit a height advantage and weight advantage against Montrezl Harrell if Oklahoma City can feed the ball into Adams down low. We have previously seen Adams use brute force and surprisingly delicate footwork to move smaller defenders out of position for easy looks at the rim.
The post-up is not a hugely efficient option on offence for any player except Joel Embiid but it will be a shot available to the Thunder in a series against the Clippers providing that the Thunder can make the entry pass. In a sense, this shot type is risky due to the set-up required for Adams to get a good look. An entry pass can hang in the air for a long time and a talented ball thief like George will use his length to swipe the ball away and generate turnovers. It would be important to get the lengthy, rangy defender off the lead ball-handler so that there is a greater chance of the entry pass hitting the target. Coach Donovan could feasibly use a guard scene to force a defensive switch by the Clippers. The defender switched onto the lead guard will likely still be effective but the chance of success ticks upwards marginally.
Coach Rivers will eventually make the adjustment if Montrezl Harrell is being dominated and put Zubac in the game to match size wise. This is another opportunity for Adams to use his skillset to beat the Clippers. Zubac is not particularly mobile and he can be flat-footed occasionally. Zubac’s comfort zone is at the rim, he wants to hang back and protect that area of the floor. Adams’ ability to pass out of hand-off situations and act as an offensive fulcrum at the three-point line will force Coach Rivers to switch defender or have Zubac in a situation where he is uncomfortable. Adams can be a match-up headache if Coach Donovan learns when to use Adams effectively, his ability to handle the ball while also being a physical presence is a rare combination of skills in a league where most bigs have little knowledge of post-play. The side effect of moving Steven out of the painted area is that it opens space down low for Thunder players to cut into for easy layups. It is difficult for a defence, even the most skilled team to constantly make the correct call-outs and rotations when defending off-ball. Oklahoma City moving Adams away from the key creates the opportunity to blitz the Clippers with movement and stretch the defence out.
Defence on a player like Kawhi can be tricky, his ability to bully his way into his spot and then knock down contested mid-range jumpers can destroy a defensive coverage. In these examples, the defence does everything correctly and yet Leonard can still hit the difficult look. When Leonard came into the league in 2011, he was primarily a defensive specialist with the kind of monstrous athleticism which made him a superb slasher. His ball-handling was fairly non-existent and it was an area of his game that the Spurs sought to develop in preparation for a post-Duncan era. Coach Popovich was wise in recognising that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were in the twilight of their careers and he was pragmatic enough to realise that Leonard would be the future cornerstone of the Spurs. For Kawhi to fulfil this destiny, his game needed to be rounded out. Leonard was a 3&D wing who needed to learn how to be a point guard for a team that had few true high-usage shot creators.
The result of countless hours of work and a laser-focus on the craft meant that Kawhi’s skill-set was fully fleshed out. Leonard was a five-tool player, the type of guy who could lead an offence and defence. The disagreements led Leonard to Toronto where his game elevated to another level. The Raptors needed Leonard to score the ball and carry the offence for stretches at a time as he did in the Sixers’ series. It was the embodiment of his craft, a premier scorer hitting difficult shots time and time again. Although Kawhi can hit from all three levels, his primary is a sweet mid-range jumper that is always there for him even when in the play-offs where defences play him differently.
The mid-range two is the primary source of Leonard’s offence, he gets 49.9% of his shots from pull-up mid-range jumpers. The footwork on this shot is incredibly difficult given that the majority of shots from this area of the floor are not taken static, there is a moving base which Leonard hits from. Kawhi’s footwork is not particularly pretty but it is effective, he always seems to be able to release a jumper that has plenty of lift and is accurate. The obvious solution for the defence would be a man coverage where the defender does not give up the mid-range at all and shades Kawhi towards a big man at the rim, the opportunity for Leonard to score on a contested layup is allowed as long as Leonard gets no breathing room. This scheme would work providing that the defence can slow Kawhi’s decision-making but he often makes decisions early in the shot-clock. Leonard’s decisiveness is seen in his number of dribbles taken before a shot attempt, Kawhi takes the large of majority of his shots after 2-6 dribbles. He does not feel out or probe the defence, he knows what spot he wants and challenges the defence to match him.
Oklahoma City cannot get into this game with Kawhi, his physicality allows him to plow through defenders and he will consistently beat the Thunder from the mid-range area. He is an experienced operator from this spot and is efficient enough for this look to be a key element of his shot diet. Oklahoma City do not have a defender of the same physicality who can stop Leonard from bullying his way into his favourite spots, Chris Paul could feasibly hang with Leonard for a few possessions but this is not a feasible assignment for the whole of the game. Leonard will wear Chris Paul down and tire him out so that he will not operate well on offence.
The solution for the Thunder is not obvious and to understand the coverage, you need to look at how to force a great offensive player out of his rhythm. As a basketball player, Kawhi Leonard is a superb scorer but he is not unstoppable, the key for the Thunder is making Leonard think by not letting him get to the mid-range area. Kawhi is not a natural play-maker, it is a skill that he has learned over the years. He can play the primary play-maker role but he is paint by numbers compared to a traditional point guard. It is important for the defender to understand his role in the scheme, the defender assigned to Kawhi needs to contain Leonard rather than stop him. The defensive player needs to shade Leonard towards the wing, away from the mid-range and paint. By providing a different coverage to what Kawhi usually receives, the idea of switching the scheme is to unsettle Leonard and make him think about the action which needs to be run.
The other scheme in regard to Leonard is riskier but it could be more effective for the Thunder. Kawhi is a player who hunts for his own shot rather than creating offence for other players, the large majority of his looks are unassisted. This is an aspect of Kawhi’s game which could be exploited by the Thunder, Oklahoma City can take Leonard out of the play early in the shot-clock if they blitz the ball-handler. A blitz coverage will have two defenders aggressively trapping the ball before eventually returning to a more normal coverage. The scheme often forces the lead ball-handler to dish the ball to a team-mate and play 4v3. While a 4v3 is not ideal for the Thunder, you would rather the ball ends up in Patrick Beverley or Paul George’s hands, neither player is an exceptional ball-handler who can run the offence to same level that Leonard does. If you can get an early stop on Leonard in the shot-clock, it will force the Clippers to improvise on offence and go through a different player than what Doc Rivers wanted.
Attack the Point
Patrick Beverley is a feared defender at the point guard spot, he is more than willing to get into the jersey of the other player and does not give the other player any breathing room. Beverley gets a lot of success out of his pest-like style, the opposing guard is forced to make decisions under pressure which can result in bad choices being made. Beverley is different to other two-way point guard such as Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, he has rarely operated as the primary ball-handler for a team in the past. On all of the teams which Beverley has played on, there have been higher usage players who command the offence. In Houston, James Harden dictated the action and in Los Angeles, players like Lou Williams and Tobias Harris usually controlled the ball a lot of the time. Beverley has only been given full access to Coach Rivers’ playbook this season, before that Doc Rivers took the initiative in terms of calling plays for his team. Rivers has trusted Beverley with a responsibility that only two other players have received, the ability to call the offence instead of waiting for instruction.
While Beverley has been confident in terms of running the actions, he will not know the minutiae of the playbook, that is knowledge which takes years of repetition to understand fully. Chris Paul will be able to use his mind and knowledge of Doc Rivers’ playbook to full effect. Paul has one of the best brains in basketball and will have a detailed understanding of how each action is ran and how Paul can destroy the possession. The combination of intelligence and knowledge can give the Thunder an advantage on the defensive end in terms of identifying weak points in Doc’s scheming. This may seem like a minor point but we have seen other players swing the momentum of a series by innately knowing the opposing team’s actions. Rajon Rondo managed to drag the Bulls to a 2-0 series lead against the Boston Celtics just by knowing how a team coached by Brad Stevens played.
The match-up at the point guard spot is also favourable for Oklahoma City, one of the few spots in the series where the Thunder can win the individual match-up. While Beverley is a tenacious, aggressive and some might say dirty defender, Paul is not the type of player to be fazed when the heat is on. Paul keeps his cool and will continue to make good decisions on offence. Paul wins the mental aspect of the battle which is the key for beating Patrick Beverley.
Oklahoma City are unlikely to beat the Clippers in a seven game series when both teams are carefully looked at. Los Angeles have more depth, the top-level star talent and a very talented coach in the form of Doc Rivers. Oklahoma City’s only real advantage comes at the point guard spot, the lack of distinct advantages can make the series difficult to win. The Thunder coaching staff need to remain aware of leveraging the few advantages that the team has, once a tactical card is played, LA will find the adjustment to take that option away from OKC for the rest of the series. The keys for the Thunder having a chance to steal games from the Clippers will be finding ways to break down the Clips’ defence.