With 6:25 left in the fourth quarter, Russell Westbrook has his sights set on the rim. As Montrezl Harrell is on an island, Westbrook directs traffic while setting up his eventual foray to the rim. He attempts his patented left-to-right crossover, but loses control of the ball. A mini-scramble ensues before Westbrook retains the ball. Unfortunately, Patrick Beverley has already left his feet by that point.
Bodies collide, a foul is called, then tempers flare.
Double technicals are handed out, and the Clippers eventually lose the game. But that effort and fiery nature — even when down 16 points — is what stands out the most about the sequence.
These aren’t your grandfather’s Clippers, a team mired by a poor on-court product and even more tension off the court (thanks, Donald Sterling). These aren’t even your slightly older cousin’s Clippers, a team with one of the most talented quartets in the league that could never get over The Hump™ for a multitude of reasons.
No, this team is a little different. They combine the elements of the old and the new. They aren’t lovable (and disjointed) losers, nor are they a top-heavy, joyless contender weighed down by expectation. This is a tight-knit, balanced group that puts in legitimate work on both ends of the floor.
The Clippers sit at 4-3 right now following their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. Still, they’ve been one of the pleasant surprises in the league so far. Despite their “meh” record, they’re currently one of four teams that rank in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating.
Their scoring attack is a multi-pronged effort. At the head of it is Tobias Harris, a smooth player who can dice up defenses in a myriad of ways. He’s your classic match-up problem at the 4; he’s too big for smaller defenders to deal with, and too quick for like-sized tweeners to hang with on the perimeter. It should come as no surprise, then, that Harris currently averages a career-high in points (20.9) and true shooting percentage (59.1). He’s one of six players taking at least 15 shots per contest while also shooting 55 percent from two and 35 percent from deep.
Harris’ bag of tricks is unfair at times. He has a nice first step, a crisp handle for a guy his size, superb footwork, and a fluid jumper that he can let fly from anywhere. Watch below as he calmly snatches the soul of Rockets center Clint Capela:
[Extreme guy from the And-1 Mixtape series voice] OH, BABY!
Harris is balling so far this year, but that’s to be expected. What’s more surprising is the play of Danilo Gallinari, who has basically been this guy for the majority of his NBA career:
For now, herky-jerky Gallo is back. He’s splashing triples at nearly a 47 percent clip, then leveraging the threat of his shot with a pump-and-go game that gets him to the free throw line. He, uh, doesn’t really miss there; his 97.2 conversion rate at the charity stripe is tops among the 90 players that have attempted at least 20 free throws. The Clippers are scoring 110.4 points per 100 possessions overall behind their dynamic forward scoring duo. What’s scary is that they could probably be better.
Lou Williams is averaging a shade under 17 points a night, but is only making a third of his catch-and-shoot threes. He shot a smidgen under 40 percent on those looks last season. Williams also isn’t doing his usual damage in pick-and-roll yet; he’s generating nearly two points less per 100 possessions as the pick-and-roll this year compared to last. That should trend upwards.
Avery Bradley, a career 36.5 percent shooter from deep, is shooting 26.1 percent right now. Patrick Beverley is shooting 24 percent from deep, over 13 percentage points lower than his career average. It’s not overly-optimistic to say progressing to the mean should come for those two. In the odd event that it doesn’t happen, it might not matter much. Heck, that would just mean more playing time for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
SGA is, in a word, fun. He’s 6’6 and wiry, but is an odd mix of explosive and crafty. Young point guards typically struggle with the speed and physicality (quiet, #90sNBATwitter!) of the NBA. SGA has had no such issues; he has a pace and understanding to his game well beyond his years.
SGA takes his time as he probes around the pick. Nuggets guard Monte Morris (he’s been good!) does a nice job of beating SGA to the spot, but he’s in no way prepared for the spin-gather that SGA busts out as a counter. Pay attention to how high he keeps the ball as he spins, then peep the footwork used to create space at the rim for the lefty finish. That’s just delicious.
Of course, you can’t talk about the Clippers without at least mentioning Boban Marjanovic, who has continued his reign as the NBA’s premier per-minute scorer. Eight points in 9.5 minutes per games is absurd; doing so on 74.1 percent shooting from the field is even more absurd. Doing it like this is damn near criminal.
As fun as the Clippers have been on offense, they’ve been even better defensively. They rank sixth in defensive rating thanks to some aggressive point-of-attack defense that funnels things inside. The Clippers are allowing the seventh-fewest three-point attempts per 100 possessions, and rank fourth in three-point percentage allowed. They’re allowing the eighth-fewest attempts from the corners — the most efficient three teams can take.
The downside is that teams are getting a lot of shots off at the rim, 36 a night to be exact. That’s tied for the most in the league, but it hasn’t hurt them yet, because opponents are only shooting 59.1 percent in the restricted area, the fourth-stingiest mark in the league.
You can thank Harrell for that, as he’s been swatting shots (1.9 a game, 3.3 per 36 minutes) left and right. Mostly known for his pogo-stick work on the glass, he’s channeled that energy into becoming a deterrent at the rim.
First, that is a fantastic block by Harrell. However, look at how well the Clippers handle that possession. They (read: Beverley) snuff out the screen action intended for Bradley Beal with relative ease. A switch is made, killing off that option. SGA does a great job of tracking John Wall on the drive, and Harrell waits until Wall, a notoriously good jump-passer, commits to the shot before attacking it.
Defense leads to offense, folks.
The Clippers currently lack The Guy that could put them in the Western Conference’s upper class, but that’s okay. In an ideal scenario, that’s what the summer is for. The Clippers are projected to have the dough to throw at any two of the big names on the market, the Kevin Durants and the Jimmy Butlers of the world.
For now, though, this is a team designed to give their opposition fits on both ends of the floor. They’re deep, well-coached, fiery, confident, and pretty darn fun. In a post-Lob City world, that’s the best you can realistically ask for.