Clippers steal away to best record
By Ben Golliver
The Clippers’ highlights are so ubiquitous that it’s become impossible to miss how the team with the league’s best record finishes plays. But how those rim-rattling dunks and ankle-breaking moves in transition start is right at the top of the list of explanations for Los Angeles’ early-season success, which includes a franchise-record 14-game winning streak after a victory against the Nuggets on Christmas.
L.A., at 22-6, is the first team to 22 wins and entered Wednesday with a four-game lead in the Pacific Division. The winning streak is no fluke: The Clippers are the only team ranked in the top five in both points scored per possession and points allowed per possession (they are third and fourth, respectively).
For the Clippers, defense really is the best offense. Consider some of their offensive limitations: They rank No. 17 in three-point percentage; they are eighth in free throws attempted but just 26th in free-throw percentage; and they are ninth in offensive-rebounding rate, above average but not elite. Eight teams score more points per game and the Clippers rank 16th in pace, essentially league average, so there’s no obvious systemic (or gimmicky) explanation for their excellent offensive efficiency.
The Clippers do two things very well on offense: They are fourth in both field-goal percentage — despite their below-average three-point shooting — and assist rate. They make two-point shots, many of them at the rim, and they share the rock far better than the average team. The key to maximizing both of those strengths, though, lies in the Clippers’ unmatched ability to force turnovers. Los Angeles make the opposition cough it up on 16.4 percent of possessions, tops in the NBA.
Chris Paul is the NBA leader at 2.7 steals per game. The Clippers also have two other players (Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe) among the top 30 and two more in the top 50 (Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford). What’s more, Paul and Bledsoe actually rank Nos. 1 and 2 in steals per 48 minutes, a metric that adjusts for the fact that Bledsoe plays limited minutes off the bench. For perspective, the other 29 teams have registered between 164 and 249 steals this season; the Clippers have accumulated 301, out there on an island all by themselves.
Nuggets coach George Karl offered serious praise on this very subject after his team’s Christmas loss, as ESPN.com reported.
“I think Chris Paul right now — I know this might sound crazy — I think he’s the defensive player of the year. I think he’s an incredible defender. I think he gets the ball, causes pressure.”
The steals are supplemented by blocks, too. L.A. ranks seventh in blocks, led by center DeAndre Jordan, who is 16th with 1.6 per game. Ronny Turiaf and Bledsoe also are among the top 40 in blocks per 48 minutes.
All those loose-ball opportunities and quick ends to opponent possessions create the transition chances in which the Clippers thrive. Moving the ball, whether by bounce pass or alley-oop, sets up the point-blank shot opportunities that L.A. requires to flourish.
The Clippers have taken it to another level during their winning streak. They’ve outscored teams by an average of 14.8 points (103.6-88.2) in the last 14 games, raising their margin of victory for the season to a league-leading 9.7. While their schedule included a number of weaker sisters — the Raptors, Suns (twice), Bobcats, Pistons, Hornets and Kings (twice) — that’s still out of this world. To make those blowouts happen, the Clippers have forced an average of 16.6 turnovers during the streak and assisted on a remarkable 63.5 percent of their field goals. If Clippers games wind up seeming like one long blur of highlight-reel footage, that’s because, relatively speaking, that’s what they are.
In honor of L.A.’s 14-game winning streak, check out 14 highlights that resulted from the Clippers’ defense creating turnovers or broken plays and then capitalizing on them in spectacular fashion. Remember, Lob City doesn’t happen — at least not as often — without Steal City.
1. Lamar Odom deflects a potential rebound from Detroit’s Greg Monroe, leading to a loose-ball scramble that finds Crawford, Griffin and Barnes in the open court. Barnes tosses the ball off the backboard for an alley-oop to Griffin:
2. Turiaf steals a Danilo Gallinari pass and outlets to Crawford, who unleashes a behind-the-back dribble move and jump-stop combination for the transition finish:
3. After Chicago’s Joakim Noah loses the ball, Griffin pushes tempo and lob-passes ahead to Crawford, who returns the lob to Griffin for a double alley-oop:
4. Odom recovers a loose ball and feeds ahead to Bledsoe, who passes to Paul, who returns the favor with a lob pass for the alley-oop:
5. Bledsoe soars high to block a shot and the ensuing scramble for the ball leads to a Turiaf dunk on the other end:
6. Bledsoe rips Jason Thompson and beats the Kings back on the break, finishing the play with a dunk:
7. Griffin deflects a lazy Suns pass in the open court and sprints ahead for a big dunk:
8. Paul leaks out on a turnover and is fed by Crawford before finishing with a rare (for him) dunk:
9. Paul picks Carlos Boozer’s pocket and leads a three-on-two fast break with a dime to Griffin for the dunk:
10. Paul picks Zaza Pachulia’s pocket and pushes ahead to Griffin for the uncontested dunk:
11. Paul deflects a Boris Diaw pass to Barnes before leaking out and getting the pass back. He finishes with a (rare for him, again) dunk:
12. Paul deflects a Mike Conley pass and Griffin races to intercept it before taking it to the house for the dunk:
13. The Clippers trap on the perimeter and Crawford comes from the weakside to pick off a soft pass, collecting the ball and dishing it behind his back to Bledsoe, who finishes an acrobatic layup:
14. Paul forces a Steve Nash turnover in the preseason and leads a four-on-one fast break that ends with a Jordan alley-oop dunk: