MIAMI — After the LA Clippers beat the Detroit Pistons 136-125 Friday night at Little Caesars Arena, it was easy to see the team celebrating. It was a game that saw the Clippers clinch a winning record for this season-long seven-game trip. The only road game that saw the Clippers score more points was the Dec. 18 destruction of the Indiana Pacers, when the Clippers scored 151 points. And the Clippers earned their fifth comeback win of the season against the Pistons, in a game in which they trailed by more than 10 points.
But for a team with high expectations like the Clippers, Friday night was annoying. No disrespect to the struggling Pistons, but giving up 125 points to a bottom-five offense was unacceptable from the standpoint of what kind of team the Clippers are striving to be. And trailing 22-8 in the first quarter was a wakeup call the Clippers would have preferred to do without.
“We had five or six mistakes we did defensively,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Friday night of his team’s initial lack of attention to detail. “First play of the game, we don’t blitz (Bojan) Bogdanović. We come into the game saying that we’re going over on Bogdanović and Alec Burks; we go under on Alec Burks. We don’t switch the 1-3 pick-and-roll with Norman (Powell) and Russell (Westbrook); they get 2 points. And so, just mentally, we weren’t into the game to start.”
Clippers All-Star power forward Kawhi Leonard was even more pointed than Lue after Friday night’s game: “Tonight, we were terrible on the defensive end. We gave up 120-something points. I felt like we’ve just been winning games off talent. Even on the offensive end, you know what I mean? A lot of isolation, a lot of slow pace. And it starts with our defense. You can see it on the defensive end — we’re slow-paced, starting off slow.
“We have to see who we want to be and see what goals that we have set for ourselves, because just like these last games, we’re winning based on talent. We need to be winning off of execution, playing hard throughout the whole 48 minutes.”
The timing of Leonard’s challenge to his team was interesting because the trip went from Detroit to Miami, home of the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat. And before the Clippers visited the Heat, they got to have a Saturday night in South Beach before a nationally televised game against a challenging team.
Perhaps it was no surprise that the Clippers found themselves down by more than 10 points again Sunday. It was a different kind of deficit; instead of the Clippers defense struggling as it did in Detroit, it was the offense that had no idea how to solve Miami’s morphing defensive looks. Miami led 16-5 with 6:45 left to play, and the Clippers were amid a first quarter in which they failed to attempt a shot after timeout plays:
But in Sunday’s 103-95 win, the Clippers showed some encouraging qualities. They completed another comeback after trailing by more than 10 points, their sixth such win of the season and second consecutive. The Clippers offense increased its point total in every quarter, as the players understood what they had to do.
And after Leonard’s challenge to his team, the Clippers held an opponent to the fewest points they have allowed in more than four weeks, moving to 6-0 when they hold a team under 100 points this season. Miami’s missing shooting guards — Tyler Herro (headache) and Duncan Robinson (concussion protocol) — took away from a Heat offense that made only 8 of 30 3s (26.7 percent), while the Clippers made 16 of 39 3s (41 percent). But the Clippers also outscored Miami 19-11 from the free-throw line, continuing a trend of defending without fouling to improve the defense.
“We wanted to load up on Bam, not make it easy, stay out of foul trouble,” Clippers All-Star small forward Paul George said about Miami All-Star center Bam Adebayo, who was held to 14 points and only four free-throw attempts. “Don’t send them to the free-throw line. Just force everything to be over the top.”
Though the Clippers stayed disciplined defensively throughout the game, Miami’s defense bottomed out in the fourth quarter. The Clippers found themselves in the bonus after only three minutes had passed in the fourth quarter, and that’s when point guard James Harden provided necessary offensive separation, highlighted by two 3-pointers made through Heat fouls. Harden completed the 4-point play on the first one:
Overall, the Clippers made 15 of 18 free throws in the fourth quarter, with 10 of 12 attempts coming before Miami was forced to foul intentionally. It was a bounce back from Harden, who missed 9 of 10 shots Friday in Detroit. Harden’s ability to hit 3s (5-of-9 in Miami from 3) and draw fouls, sometimes simultaneously, allows a player like George to be at his best defensively.
“PG didn’t shoot the ball well, but I thought he was great defensively,” Lue said Sunday. “That’s when James comes in, and he picked up the scoring, and Kawhi picked up the scoring. Norm off the bench. But like I said, just having that mindset that we’re going to try to win every game.”
On Friday, Westbrook served as the key catalyst to a Clippers comeback win. He had one of his best games as a Clipper, providing 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the field while adding nine assists. Lue praised Westbrook for saving “five or six games” this season due to his ability to provide a spark.
Russell Westbrook postgame session at Detroit on:
– Hitting 25K career points
– His most combined FG+assists (19) all season
– The tech for slapping the backboard lol
– The appreciation from road crowds pic.twitter.com/ngpPFfPPmd
— Law Murray ❤️🔥 (@LawMurrayTheNU) February 3, 2024
Westbrook tends to thrive against teams that play fast and have poor interior defenses. Miami is one of the league’s slower teams, with a defense that is difficult to penetrate against. So Lue leaned heavier into the rest of his bench, with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Powell, backup forward Amir Coffey and backup center Mason Plumlee, who is back in the second unit after the healthy return of starter Ivica Zubac, getting the bulk of the reserve minutes. In 16 minutes with the Powell, Plumlee and Coffey lineup, the Clippers outscored Miami by 13 points.
“We just had low energy,” Lue said of Sunday’s first-quarter deficit. “Didn’t have a lot of energy. And then our bench came in, with Russ and Norm and Amir. Mase. They came in and kind of got us going.”
It will be a challenge for the Clippers to finish the trip 6-1. That is what awaits Monday night, with the Clippers wrapping up the trip against the Atlanta Hawks. But the Clippers are showing another level of defensive attention and a response to games with teachable lessons.
“It’s about what we practice,” Leonard said Sunday of how he assesses the success of his team’s defense. “We’re going to play great players; they’re going to make tough shots. So it’s about not allowing easy layups — or, you know, pretty much our principles. Making sure we’re into the ball, making sure we’re talking, communicating. Our weak side being there. You know, that’s pretty much it. Transition defense, rebounding. So, just making sure we’re locked in on those.”
(Photo of Russell Westbrook: Rich Storry / Getty Images)