There is little objection when it comes to Doc Rivers ability to coach. While some, including myself, weren’t completely sure he’d be able to turn this Clippers team around, he’s done so. He did enough to the offense as to where Chris Paul didn’t have to do any and everything. DeAndre Jordan’s transformation has Rivers’ fingerprints all over him and Blake Griffin’s leap to superstardom can be linked to Rivers putting his superstar in the right position to succeed. He’s done all that he’s asked for after being handed the keys to a potential championship contender.
But in the last two games, Rivers has made a questionable change in the lineup that has caught our eyes: he’s opted to play Jamal Crawford over J.J. Redick in the fourth quarter.
While Game 3 was out of reach for Los Angeles going into the fourth quarter, Game 4 wasn’t. Up four, the odds were in the Clippers favor as they had yet to lose a game when leading entering the fourth, but offense did them as the Thunder outscored them 32-22, 22 points being their lowest scoring output in a quarter this series.
The Thunder defense must be given credit for forcing the Clippers into bad shots, majority coming from Jamal Crawford. Crawford as a player is a curse that you’re, at times, happy to have. He’s instant offense. When things are going bad, he can single-handily provide a lift to the offense. But that offense comes through isolation sets that cast out his teammates and makes it much easier for the defense to guard the Clippers as a whole. When he’s on he’s a joy, but when he’s off there’s no reason for him to be on the floor. And defensively, he’s a negative, with all measures to evaluate his performance on that end being against him.
So why is Crawford in instead of Redick who 1) fits the offense better, 2) creates open shots for his teammates due to his off-ball movement, 3) makes the defense work harder as they’re forced to chase him around said off-ball screens, and 4) is better suited to defend when the Thunder went small in the fourth quarter?
My educated guess on the situation is that Rivers has opted to go Crawford over Redick because Crawford adds an additional ball-handler to the lineup beside Chris Paul which, again in theory, is meant to make the offense better. We’ve seen teams employ two ball-handler’s in the offense over the years, hoping it creates extra options, but things haven’t worked out that way for the Clippers against the Thunder in this series.
In a piece over at Bleacher Report, Seth Partnow did an excellent job explaining how important Redick is to the Clippers offense as he frees things up for the other four players around him.
While the Thunder understandably focused their defensive adjustments on Paul following his Human Torch-like performance in Game 1, Redick was even more effective in his ability to shake free off the ball in Game 2 than in the first contest.
As the series progresses, Redick’s subtler impact on the game may require some serious defensive adjustments from OKC. His ability to attract defensive attention away from the ball continues to open up space and opportunities for both himself and other Clippers.
The threat is obvious, Redick is one of the deadliest catch-and-shoot players in the league, especially from three-point range, where he ranked 24th out of the roughly 160 regular rotation players who took at least one catch-and-shoot three per game, according to SportVU.
The mere threat of Redick spotting up forces the defense into uncomfortable decisions
The numbers support Partnow’s assessment. According to NBA Stats, the Oklahoma City Thunder have posted a defensive rating of 121.8 when Redick is on the floor (75 minutes) opposed to 105.8 when he’s off the floor (69 minutes). With Jamal Crawford on the floor, the Thunder take advantage, posting a defensive rating of 110.6 when he’s on the floor (66 minutes) and 117.8 when off the floor (78 minutes).
When judging defensive rating in the grand scheme of things, neither of these numbers are good. Anything in the 100s shows that the defense is allowing tons of points per 100 possessions, but coming into the series, this was expected, especially on the Los Angeles Clippers end. They don’t possess the defensive personnel compared to a Memphis Grizzlies team that can stifle the Thunder’s offense on a consistent basis. Even the Grizzlies defense wasn’t enough when it came to slowing down Kevin Durant and company as they exploded in the last two games of the series. So when the Clippers want to ensure they can defeat the Thunder, they’ll do it be hoping the Thunder’s offense isn’t good enough to stop their own.
In Game 1 the strategy worked. Behind Chris Paul’s all-time shooting performance, the Clippers looked unstoppable. In Game 2 it was the Thunder who looked unstoppable behind dominant performances by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In Game 3 the Clippers were no track to repeat what they did in Game 3, but Doc Rivers limited their offensive ceiling by opting for Crawford in the fourth. In fairness, Redick did himself no favors as he struggled from the field in quarter one through three, shooting 0-of-4 in the time period, but on a team that has stressed trust when struggling, Rivers ran away from his own philosophy. And Jamal Crawford did himself by shooting 2-of-7 in the fourth quarter, constantly stalling the offense in favor of isolation sets that oft. ended in a bad possession.
Another important number that drastically changes is the Assist Ratio. On the series, the Clippers have posted an ASTRatio of 18.8. When Crawford is on the bench that number jumps to 21.1 and drops to 15.5 when he’s on the floor. For perspective, the difference when Crawford is on the floor opposed to when he’s off is the same difference in assist ratio as being the best ball-moving team in the NBA (Spurs were first at 19.1) to the third worst in the NBA (Phoenix – 14.8, Sacramento – 14.7). Against one of the five best defensive teams in the NBA, the ability to move the ball, getting the defense out of position in the process is huge. Crawford isn’t allowing the team to do so and considering they have two of the best passing players at their respective position, this isn’t allowing Rivers to put those skill sets to good use.
While River’s coaching is put on the spot here, depth, or the lack of, is an underlying issue. When Crawford is struggling and Redick is resting, the Clippers have nowhere else to go. Darren Collison has been a wash on both sides of the ball this series. The forward they brought in because of his playmaking abilities in Hedo Turkoglu has been out since Game 5 of the Warriors series due to a hairline fracture in his back. He hopes to return by Game 5, but that may be a little too late. And considering who he’d be forced to guard on the defensive side of the ball, his impact will surely be minimal. Willie Green? Jared Dudley? Both can provide shooting, but little on defense. Reggie Bullock could receive playing time due to his defensive abilities, but his inexperience and now isn’t the time to rely on a rookie unless injury calls to do so. Mismanagement and underachieving guys is what’s gotten the Clippers to this point and when they need an extra push the most, the bench isn’t rightfully equipped for their series unless they’re scorching on offense.
Rivers hasn’t spoken on why Redick’s second half minutes have disappeared as the series has gone on. There hasn’t been any showing of injury and he’s played well enough to be guaranteed playing time. This is what he was acquired for right? The Clippers moved the hottest trade prospect last season for the opportunity to have J.J. play off Paul and Griffin, getting shots for himself and for his teammates in the process. But he’s been subjected to bench duty in the fourth quarters. Crawford is good, but this isn’t ideal going forward. You can hide Redick on defense if you’re forced to. With Scott Brooks going small, Rivers could opt to play both guards to match up with Jackson-Butler at the wings. There are many ways to attack this situation without strapping the superior shooting guard to the bench in critical minutes of the game. Rivers has been adept at adjusting as the series go on, so here’s another he’ll have to make.
Or it’ll be another early second round exit the Clippers have to deal with.