Things are going, eh, not so great for Buzz City at the moment. After back-to-back wins against the Grizzlies and Lakers, the Hornets have backslid: losing five straight games by an average margin of nearly 11 points. Injuries have zapped the team of it’s offensive firepower — specifically the playmaking and shooting of the versatile Nic Batum, who was playing at an All-Star level — and on defense they’ve regressed, too.
Charlotte, who was in the top third of the league for much of the season in defensive efficiency, still has a positive net point differential (1.8 points per 100 possessions), but has dropped back towards the middle of the pack on the defensive end; they’re currently No. 14 — giving up 101.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
On Wednesday night, it looked as though the schedule was giving them exactly what the doc ordered: a matchup with the dumpster fire that is the Phoenix Suns. No dice, however — the Suns won 111-102, thanks in part to 17 points from T.J. Warren. Things won’t get any easier either when they cruise into Lob City on Saturday for a showdown with the red hot Los Angeles Clippers, and their alley-oop assembly line of Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan.
In mid-December, the Clippers found themselves in the midst of a mini-slump, too: the team lost three straight games (two against fellow Western Conference super powers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City), and didn’t score above 100 points in two of those contests — unheard of for a team constantly ranking in the top five in offensive efficiency. All of this took place just before the Clips played five straight road games — one of which was an “away” game on Christmas against the Lakers.
Things, however, have changed drastically for LAC in a short period of time, and they’ve done most of this without their all-world power forward Blake Griffin on the court. Griffin injured his quadricep against the Lakers, and has yet to play since — he’s expected to be back in the next week or so. Starting with that Laker game, though, and continuing forward, the Clippers have erupted. Doc Rivers and his club will be riding the wave of a seven-game win streak when the Hornets enter the Staples Center Saturday afternoon. The Clippers have scored 108 points or more in five of these seven games, including a 122-117 beating of the Hornets in Charlotte last week.
A major reason for this: the schedule, which lightened up greatly for Los Angeles. During this win streak, the Clips have played: the Lakers, Jazz, Wizards, Hornets, Pelicans,
Flint Tropics, 76ers (lol), and Trail Blazers. Not exactly murder’s row, you know? Those teams have a combined record of 85-165, only Utah would be in the playoffs in they started tonight, and only one of those seven teams — Charlotte — has a positive point differential. So suffice to say, it’s easier to win games when your schedule is stacked with mostly crappy or struggling teams. I hope I didn’t burn your house down with that hot take, y’all.
So the competition wasn’t great, yes, but just how have the Clips found success in the absence of Griffin?
Well, like everything with this team, it starts with point guard Chris Paul. CP3 hasn’t shot well during the six games sans Blake, but he’s been damn good: averaging 17.7 points and 12.3 assists. Paul has assisted on 60 percent of his team’s made field goals when he’s been on the floor in this run without Blake, and he also put on a goddamn clinic a few nights back against Damian Lillard and the Blazers.
Another boon for the Clippers has been the emergence of Paul Pierce and his YMCA all-star game. In his last five games, including four starts, Pierce has averaged nearly 13 points per game and shot a scalding 57.7 percent on threes. The Truth has entered the lineup as a small-ball stretch four — something I anticipated in the SC8 NBA season preview — and it’s further opened the lane for Jordan rim runs off of high ball screens for Paul. The Clippers have scored 122.8 points per 100 possessions in those five games with Pierce on the floor, according to NBA.com.
It pleases me to see Chris Paul and J.J. Redick put two years of Tobacco Road bad blood behind them, and play beautiful ball together out west. Redick has averaged 20 points over the last six games, and connected on 61.8 percent of his threes, which is just absurd. Here’s a look at his shot short, per NBA.com, during that stretch; check at all of this lush green area. He’s perfect on corner treys, and 17 of 30 from above the break — which, again, absurd.
It should also be noted that Austin Rivers, coming off the bench, has also shot lights out during this period of time: the coach’s son has hit at a 58 percent clip from deep.
All of this shooting — Pierce, Redick, Rivers — has opened up the lane, and DeAndre Jordan is taking full advantage with a parade of slams and jams. Jordan currently leads the league in shooting percentage (73.1 percent) — something he’s done the past four seasons. He gets a shitload of high percentage dunks, mostly off assists from Paul and Griffin. Jordan had 252 dunks last season, and with 109 already through 36 games, he’s on pace for a similarly gaudy number this year. Without Griffin the last two weeks, Jordan has shot 84 percent from the field; he’s also slapped up better than 14 boards and 2 blocks per game, too. Here’s DJ’s shot chart — you can see exactly where every shot comes from: at the rim.
NBA.com’s player tracking is amazing, and allows us to see the maestro-like brilliance of CP3. 30.2 percent of his passes have gone to Redick; on those dishes, 4.2 have resulted in three-point attempts for J.J. — and he’s shot 64 percent on those plays. For Pierce: 23.6 percent of CP3’s passes have gone to The Truth, who in turn has shot 59 percent from deep on those looks. And finally, there’s Jordan. 16.3 percent of Paul’s passes have been intend for Jordan — nine per game. Of those nine passes, 3.5 per game have resulted in field goal attempts — and D.J. is shooting an INSANE 90.5 percent on those passes (19 of 21). Good god, man! This is efficient as fuck, and it’s what happens as a result of Paul running an offense with Jordan sprinting to the rim, surrounded by three shooters.
When Blake’s in the lineup, Los Angeles prefers to use him as a screen for Paul to ignite their high-powered attack. This allows CP3 to hit him with pocket passes and put Griffin, and his passing ability, in the middle of the floor with a 4-on-3 advantage — much like the Warriors do with Draymond Green. Despite missing six games, Griffin has been the roll man on 148 plays this season, which ranks in the league. But with Blake on the sideline, it becomes Dre’s turn to wreck having as the roll guy, but there will be no passes — and that’s a good thing. Of players who have been the roll man in a pick-and-roll 50 or more times, Jordan leads the league with 1.37 points per possession, according to NBA.com. He’s dunks everything.
So yeah, Steve Clifford’s Hornets will have to be on their toes while defending a team that’s scoring 1.16 points per possession it’s last six games. When these two teams met on December 30th, LA snapped in 15 threes and dropped 122 points against the Buzz. On Saturday, it’s imperative that they find a way to clamp down on shooters, and neutralize those Jordan sprints to the cylinder. Batum is questionable to play tomorrow against the Clips; his return would go a long way on both sides of the floor.
If not, well, they’ll be in Denver on Sunday; I’m sure the fellas could find something to, shall we say, lift their spirits.