How Russell Westbrook inadvertently allowed the Clippers to rediscover their defense by going small

There is no shortage of candidates for the biggest Kawhi Leonard-Paul George-era loss in Clippers history. This team squandered a 3-1 lead in the bubble. A few months later, he suffered a 51-point home loss to the Dallas Mavericks, lost three home playoff games in a row to the same Mavericks, and this season has managed to close the lead by 14 points and allow Sacramento to score 176 points. Kings. This team has a lot of serious defeats on its track record, but Sunday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies almost took the cake.

The Clippers took the bold step of not only signing Russell Westbrook after the trade deadline, but immediately breaking up a thriving lineup to include him in the starting five. This decision brought five defeats in a row. A sixth-place finish would not only drop the Clippers below .500, but also equalize them in the losing column with the hated Lakers, who got rid of Westbrook in the first place. They played at home with a team from Memphis that did not have four of the best players, including NBA defenseman Ja Morant. In the second quarter, they led by double digits. And then allowed 51 points in the third.

With about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Clippers were 14 behind the Grizzlies. In desperation, they removed Mason Plumley from the game and played the rest of the fourth quarter without the big man. They beat the Grizzlies by 20 points in the final nine minutes to win the game 135–129.

I know what you’re thinking: the small size must have helped the Clippers space out around Westbrook, whose lack of shooting is so problematic that teams guard it like this:

There is a deal of truth in it. The Clippers couldn’t have won this game if it wasn’t for their amazing offensive play. The small size makes life easier in attack. The Grizzlies couldn’t, say, trap Kawhi Leonard with Westbrook’s man every time he came down the court to kick the ball out of his hands like the Kings did in Westbrook’s debut, because Westbrook still had there would be three snipers who needed to pass the ball at a short distance. -roll. But many of the Clippers’ shots weren’t typical smallball shots. Leonard and Paul George showed some tough jumpers to win the game for the Clippers. This is not what teams imagine when they get small.

Also, the Clippers haven’t had a problem scoring a goal lately. Even with Westbrook on the floor, they scored 118.4 points per 100 possessions, just short of the Kings, who are number one in the NBA offensive rating with 118.6 for the season. No, the problem arose on defense, where the Clippers are 24th since New Year’s and have 119 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor. The Clippers lost games with Westbrook mostly because they couldn’t get stops.

NBA dogma suggests that being small will compromise your defense for the sake of your offense. Often this is true. But one of Westbrook’s former teams devised a plan to survive in defense without a center. In 2020, the Houston Rockets completely abandoned the center position by trading Clint Capella for Robert Covington. In a way, they paid the price for it. Since then, they’ve only collected 44.8 percent of their total rebounds, the worst in the NBA, by such a margin that the gap between #29 Washington was closer to #16 Portland than Houston.

However, if you look at the overall defensive numbers, Houston was fine. After the acquisition of Covington, they finished ninth in defense, and despite their small size, eight teams have allowed more shots in the restricted area than since. So how did they do it?

  • They generated the second most turnover in the NBA.
  • They were third in rejections.
  • They switched everything in defense, which allowed them to limit the opponent’s three-point attempts and cause ineffective post-ups.
  • They doubled aggressively, especially near the basket, believing they had enough speed to get back in place.

It was a calculated compromise. In exchange for rebounds and shots, the Rockets took valuable three-pointers from the rim and created more passing opportunities at the expense of losses. Given the offensive advantages of shallow play, this worked in their favor. Intentionally or not, the Clippers saw similar benefits when they went down on Sunday. Between the 8:59 and 1:27 marks in the fourth quarter, the Clippers scored just two points. They did this in large part by tearing a page out of an old Houston textbook.

Memphis constantly tried to get to the basket for seven and a half minutes, but whenever the Grizzlies did, they were stymied by the extra help. The Paul George brace is what makes Jaren Jackson Jr foul on offense.

Xavier Tillman, whom Memphis wanted to pass the ball to because he was guarded by a much smaller Eric Gordon, travels this game after George switches to him.

Something similar played out a few possessions later. The Grizzlies considered Tillman inside against Leonard to be a mismatch. George came and doubled. Tilman missed.

In all three plays, the Clippers made a bet that the Grizzlies would deal with the issue due to perceived inconsistencies. When Memphis did this, the Clippers forced losses. When you’re this small, you have the speed to help if those inconsistencies prove problematic. This speed came in handy in the next clip. Leonard starts the game with Tyus Jones, but after Marcus Morris switched to him, George jumped over to secure, Westbrook switched to Bain and Leonard, knowing where Bain would see the pass, played a loose safety and caught an interception.

Not long after, Westbrook commits a similar theft. Memphis swings the ball when Leonard stays put to help Bain, but the Clippers spin efficiently enough to generate a pass when the Grizzlies make a mistake. In this case, David Roddy expects Morris to keep Jackson in the corner. He doesn’t, and Westbrook passes back to the corner, turning to face Jackson.

The Grizzlies tried to hit 34 three-pointers in a game, but they only made four in that crucial seven-and-a-half-minute stretch. It’s not hard to see why if you look at the tape. The Clippers, especially Westbrook, made an effort to push the Grizzlies off the line. Westbrook covers Luke Kennard hard on this play, but is happy to give up the back lane for a drive because he trusts the defense behind him. When Kennard passes him to Jackson in the other corner, George is able to secure a better fight.

Westbrook is again inferior to the baseline in this Kennard look because he knows George is behind him. This time, however, Kennard settles for a mid-range jump and misses.

This kind of protection is hardly reliable. The lone basket scored by Memphis at this stretch proves that something can go wrong. Gordon clearly expects Leonard to switch to Bane, but instead Leonard takes Tillman and Morris stays with Tyus Jones. This gives Bane a clean path to the trash.

But for nearly eight minutes on Sunday, the Clippers seemed to be taking a defensive approach that could work. When all five of their players are blocked, they are long enough, fast enough, and strong enough to successfully execute this aggressive form of small ball defense.

Does that mean they’re going to take him on a permanent basis like the Rockets did? Probably no. Zubac is a strong defender when he’s healthy, and Westbrook is a great big man passer when he’s driving. Perhaps more importantly, this style is incredibly tiring, especially for the flankers who end up guarding the big men. The Clippers know this from experience because they played the same version against the Mavericks in the 2021 postseason.

But defense has been a problem for the Clippers for months. The attack could become one when the off-season hits and opponents plan their game more aggressively against Westbrook. In theory, smallball can solve both problems, and the Clippers have staff who can play it often. Their best smallball center, Nick Batum, didn’t even take the floor during that stretch. So did Covington, who was critical to Houston’s success in 2020 and is now glued to Tai Liu’s bench. It’s no panacea, but in their biggest regular season game, it saved the Clippers from a humiliating loss to the Grizzlies.


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