The Los Angeles Clippers were one of the most feared offensive teams in the NBA during the regular season. The talented, star powered, and popular team ran up and down the court shooting threes and getting dunks. They averaged 108.6 ppg (6th best in the NBA), and had an ORTG of 112.7 (5th). They weren’t slow by any means, but their 96.1 possessions per game did rank them as 16th in the NBA. Regardless, they could push the tempo and get transition buckets - and did. Frequently. How could they not with defensive genius Chris Paul there, and DeAndre Jordan clearing the glass - while Blake Griffin ran like a freight train and J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford trailed for open threes?
Well, it’s called defense. And few teams do it better than the Jazz. Yes, the Clippers ran up and down the court against the Jazz in the regular season, and won 3 games to 1. But things really took a turn in the post-season.
For one, the games are slower. Much slower. For the season the Clippers played at a 96.1 possession game. The Jazz were slower at 91.6. In order to minimize the potential damage done in transition Quin Snyder dialled the throttle back in the regular season. In their head to head games (again, the 3-1 season series that was taken by LAC) the pace was only 90.0 possessions. Now in the playoffs it’s even slower, 89.2! There are fewer opportunities to score, and the slow pace has made it a grind it out game.
We’re not seeing quasi- seven seconds or less open jumpers on the break. We’re not even seeing transition post-ups for Blake! (Not even when he was healthy in the first few games of the series.) Utah took that away.
But the main problem for Doc Rivers is the second one. It’s the actual defense. It’s not the pace - the pace doesn’t hurt Utah in setting up their defense. But their defense has been arguably better than any Jazz defense we’ve ever seen in the analytics era of basketball.
By combining the data from Stats.NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com we get the following table (Source). It shows where the Jazz and Clippers are in terms of playoff rank (out of 16, not 30) on a few defensive categories. Deflections, charges drawn, and so forth. The important part here are the contested shots.
Utah is contesting a lot of shots. And they are contesting a lot of shots OVERALL, remember these are the total values, and then the averages put beneath. These are raw, and aren’t as big as their actual impact because these are slow games.
Okay, so the Jazz aren’t too hands-y with getting loose balls and aren’t drawing charges. That is because they are contesting shots. Utah is getting hands up, not trying to flop here. They are Top 5 in total number, and a little lower per game. (Again, pace of play is why this is what it is. They aren’t letting the Clippers shoot a lot.)
The Clippers aren’t that scary on defense by these values. In fact, that looks even more apparent when you APPLY the contested shot data from the NBA against the accumulated data from Basketball-Ref. The Clippers were terrific on offense in the regular season. They shot .472 FG% which was 2nd in the NBA, and .375 3PT%, which was 7th. They just flat out made shots. And they made their outside shots to the tune of 10.3 3PTM per game. How could they not? They had J.J. Redick, Chris Paul, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Marreese Speights, Blake Griffin, Raymond Felton, Paul Pierece, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Alan Anderson all making between 2.6 threes and 0.5 threes a game - EVERY GAME. Their top five were drilling threes all season long.
But then the playoffs and Utah happened. And the Jazz just suffocated them on the outside.
So we see that against UTA’s defense, LAC managed to shoot .530 from 2PT%, which is higher than their season value of .525. But Utah took out their three point shooting, .375 3PT% in the regular season down to .356 3PT% in the Playoffs. Is that significant? Well, when you go from their regular season data (source) to their playoff data (source) you see that they’re going from making 10.3 threes a game to just 8.4. They are shooting less frequently because of pace, they are shooting worse because of defense, and a big part of their offense is gone.
When you drill down beyond the fact that 96.61% of ALL OF THEIR THREE POINTERS ARE CONTESTED, you see something crazy (source). Chris Paul is keeping their heads above water by shooting 11/25, or .440 from downtown. Outside of him things are bad.
- J.J. Redick (7/22) .318, but shot .429 in the regular season
- Jamal Crawford (5/20) .250, but shot .360 in the regular season
- Marreese Speights (5/15) .333, but shot .372 in the regular season
- Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (4/14) .286, but shot .391 in the regular season
I could go on an on, only Raymond Felton is keeping up his end of the bargain. (It’s even worse when you see that Speights and Moute are not having their threes contested as hard as the other guys.)
Lots of credit goes to Snyder’s scheme, and the individual play of guys like Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles, George Hill, and others. Crawford and Redick, two of the most dangerous outside shooters in the game today, have shot a combined 12/42. That is a very tiny .286. That’s a slow computer. That’s not a value that spaces the floor for your top-notch offense.
By comparison, Doc Rivers has focused on giving the Jazz the three, and contesting only about 70% of their shots. The Jazz offense is one designed to get open threes. The results have kept Utah in games they should have lost, and allowed them to have that cushion to withstand the free throw crime the NBA referees are committing.
It’s a make or miss league now, with almost all teams relying on the three. Utah is doing way more to make LA miss. Let’s hope they keep it up against LA’s sharpshooters for another game and close it out at home.