“Stick and Move! Stick and Move!”
To the fans who planned on trolling Josh Smith tonight, as the L.A. Clippers face the Atlanta Hawks at the Highlight Factory (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, PRIME), I am sorry to break it to both of you. The New Day has been deferred until mid-March, as Smoove was rocketed back to Houston. But have no fear, Paul Pierce is here! He’s already called Series, I’m sure! And he will be far busier for the Clips than he ever anticipated.
This just in: Funny thing… it turns out, the Pimp Hand isn’t all that strong. Blake Griffin had to learn this the hard way a few days ago, when he two-pieced a co-worker at a Toronto restaurant. While an equipment staffer is being soothed back home with Microsoft Money to pay for his swollen face and make the whole ordeal go away, Griffin is the one who needs to wear a mask around Tinseltown. That’s because he decided Keeping It Real was more important than maintaining the structural integrity of his shooting hand, imperiling the Clippers’ postseason seeding prospects.
Griffin was already aware, over the weekend, that he would be unavailable for this week’s contests in Indiana and Atlanta. This, after plans to return two weeks after tearing his quad in a Christmas game were already delayed, may have served as underlying frustration. But now, his pugilistic exploits on his fellow employee and reported pal will cost him a return trip to Toronto in a couple weeks, 4-to-6 more weeks on the pine to mend, plus whatever post-appeal punishments get handed down by the team and the Association.
Odds are, with the money available to paper over the issue, Griff will never face charges for his battery. But barring a major kiss-and-make-up event, this flare-up will hover over team morale for awhile. The Clippers (29-16) ran through nine straight less-than-imposing opponents, and despite losing half of their past six, the prevailing sentiment was, “Imagine how good we can be, once Blake gets back!”
Now, the prospect of playing 15, 20, or even more games Griffin-free, plus whatever added time it takes for him to get re-acclimated with shooting, dribbling, passing and defense on the floor, has L.A. wondering just how sustainable this latest run at the Conference Finals is, really. Is the toast of Rodeo Drive about to hit Skid Row?
Clippers GM/coach Doc Rivers had already tired of his fellow former Hawk, sending Josh Smith plus cash back to H-Town in exchange for some fava beans. It was supposed to be addition-by-subtraction, the supposition being that Griffin was on the verge of returning, and Rivers had already demonstrated the Clips had a puncher’s chance (sorry) to win any game, even while Smoove and Lance Stephenson were busy slapboxing each other on the sideline.
Instead, it’s up to the 38-year-old Pierce (8.2 PPG, 37.3 FG%, 35.9 3FG% since starting in place of Griffin), Atlanta’s favorite postseason foil, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (19 points w/ PHI vs. short-handed ATL last March) to hold the fort at the forward spots for an indeterminable period. Backup center Cole Aldrich (career-high 5.9 PPG) has earned enough trust for Rivers to part ways with Smith, and will see more minutes alongside Jordan when the Clips want to risk going big with their lineup. For this trio, their job is basically to defend as best they can, and not turn the ball over as they defer to the Clippers’ remaining stars.
All-Star Chris Paul (NBA-high 51.0 Assist%; 9.6 APG), league-best perimeter shooter J.J. Redick (48.9 3FG%), and Paul’s Hooper-wife DeAndre Jordan (NBA-high 71.4 FG%; 13.5 RPG, 2nd in NBA; 19 rebounds vs. IND last night) will all continue to elevate their shot volumes in Griffin’s absence. Meanwhile, Rivers will rotate bench guys like Wesley Johnson (5-for-6 3FGs vs. IND last night), former Hawk and current trade-bait Jamal Crawford (NBA-high 92.0 FT%), Stephenson, Doc’s son Austin, and Pablo Prigioni, in hopes he’ll find someone with a hot hand.
The strategies have borne fruit so far, as the Clippers conclude what is already their third five-game road-trip on the season. L.A. has come away victorious in their last three games on the second night of a back-to-back set, after losing their first four this season.
In the battle of Demon Deacon alums, Jeff Teague will be challenged to stay in front of Paul, but he and his teammates must recognize that Paul is much more dangerous as a passer than as an interior halfcourt shooter (47.8 2FG%, his lowest since 2006-07). The Clippers don’t turn the ball over much (13.0 TOs per game, 2nd-fewest in NBA), so forcing L.A. into suboptimal shots and rebounding will be critical. Despite the decoy Jordan presents, 35% of the Clips’ points coming in the paint is a league-low, so the more mid-range shots (and fewer threes and free throws) induced by the Hawks, the better.
Atlanta must keep Jordan out of lob territory, seal off passing lanes allowing Paul to kick out to perimeter shooters, and contest Paul’s three-point shots (4-for-8 3FGs vs. IND) late in the shot clock without bailout fouls. It’s essential for Hawk defenders to minimize catch-and-shoot opportunities for Jordan (62.7 TS%, 4th in NBA despite 41.4 FT%) and Redick (64.8 TS%, 2nd in NBA behind Curry).
On offense, Al Horford (49.6 2FG% from 16 feet out; 8-for-12 FGs, 2 rebounds vs. DEN on Monday) should be able to play pick-your-poison with Jordan (2.2 BPG, 3rd in NBA). Either come out of the paint to contest Horford’s jumpers, or camp out and allow Paul Millsap to wear down Pierce or Mbah a Moute on the low block. Millsap’s mismatches can also open up shots for the Hawks on the weakside and in the near corner.
Led by Paul (2.0 SPG), the Clippers managed to exert enough energy last night to hold Indiana scoreless for about eight minutes in the second half, then fended off a late rally from Paul George and the Pacers to escape with a 91-89 win. They would certainly appreciate a low-pace game tonight. The Clippers will foul (31.0 opponent FTA rate, 3rd in NBA) when they need to slow the game down, so Millsap (86.0 FT% last 11 games) and the Hawks must convert when they’re granted trips to the free throw line.
Three is the magic number not only for Redick but Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, who has sunk at least three triples in his last three games for the first time since Black Friday. Kyle has also assisted on three-or-more baskets in his last four contests. His four assists in Monday’s win over the Nuggets raises the Hawks’ record to 8-1 this season (20-2 last season) when he logs at least four dimes. Korver needs to keep his body and the ball in motion, to keep Redick and the Clippers’ perimeter defenders guessing.
The Hawks’ fastbreak opportunities will come not off of turnovers but from defensive rebounds and catching L.A. flat-footed on quick inbounds after they score baskets. Even as trade winds begin to swirl, Atlanta has the energy and the focus advantage coming into tonight’s action, so it’s on them to find different ways of beating the Clippers to the punch (sorry).
Let’s Go Hawks!