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Clippers' successful defense begins at the corners of the court

Clippers coach Doc Rivers peeked at a box score during halftime Sunday and saw something concerning. His team was leading but had made only one three-pointer. Their opponent, Houston, had made six more.

“I'm thinking, we're busting analytics right now, we really are,” Rivers said.

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It was understandable to think the first-half statistics appeared unsustainable. Amid the NBA’s embrace of three-pointers in recent years, no team has leaned in quite like the Rockets (1-3), who face the Clippers (2-2) again Friday at Toyota Center. Houston derived a league-leading percentage of its points from three-point range last season (40.9%) and leads again to start this season (39.8%).

The Clippers won Sunday but never caught up to Houston from three-point range, just as they’ve been outshot through four games by allowing five more three-point attempts per game than they take. Is that sustainable? Perhaps — but only if they continue to limit the quality of three-pointers taken.

The Clippers are tied for the second-fewest three-pointers allowed from the left corner, where opponents are shooting 25%, and are close to the league average from the right, where opponents have shot 33.3%.

That’s a marked improvement from last season, when they ranked among the league’s worst by allowing 36.2% shooting on 3.8 left-corner threes and 40.4% shooting on 3.6 right-corner threes.

“That’s something we’ve been working on since Day One in training camp,” forward Danilo Gallinari said. “We have a couple of different rules and it’s definitely one of our goals to eliminate the three-point shot in the corner.”

Rivers added defensive specialist Rex Kalamian to his staff in the offseason, but said the encouraging start hasn’t been the result of an overhauled defensive scheme. Health has played an obvious factor, allowing Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley back in the rotation after they missed the majority of their games in Clippers uniforms last season. The offseason addition of Luc Mbah a Moute provided another forward who is big and agile enough to guard multiple positions.

Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute helped limit Thunder forward Paul George to seven-of-27 shooting, including three for 11 from long range Friday.
Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute helped limit Thunder forward Paul George to seven-of-27 shooting, including three for 11 from long range Friday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Together, they’ve given Rivers more confidence in his defense entering a matchup against a Houston team that shoots the league average or better from both corners.

“One of the things we aren’t doing, we just aren’t pulling in as much,” Rivers said. “We’ve been so help-oriented in the past and what we’ve done is gotten away from that. We’ve put more on the guy guarding the ball. If he can guard the ball you don’t have to help, if you don’t have to help you can take away corner threes.

“You’ve got to coach with the team you have and this is a group of guys that really do a good job of keeping the ball in front of them. Last year we got beat off the dribble a lot.”

Bradley’s defensive value to the team has kept him in the starting lineup and finishing rotation despite enduring a difficult start to his season. Per 100 possessions the Clippers have been outscored by 15.5 points when Bradley plays but are outscoring opponents by 20.5 points when he sits.

But Bradley, who has played through recurring ankle injuries this week, has a staunch defender in Rivers.

“People look at Avery and probably think, ‘Wow, why is he playing him?’” Rivers said. “Probably because Paul George went seven for 27, [James] Harden struggled, Jrue Holiday was two for [15], that’s Avery Bradley. He’s a big, big reason why we’ve played pretty well so far. He’s just tough. We’ve got to keep him healthy, though.”

Bradley might be helped out of his slow start offensively by driving at every opportunity Friday. Rockets opponents have taken the second-most attempts and shot the highest percentage in the restricted area.

The Clippers could attack a Houston defense anchored by shot-blocker Clint Capela the same way they did New Orleans on Tuesday, by using a small lineup that pulled defenders to the three-point line and created driving lanes.

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“That’s what you got to do against them too, because you can get to the foul line,” Rivers said. “When you get to the foul line you slow up their pace. They’re not trying to run anyway, but to make it even slower makes it harder for them.”

UP NEXT

VS. HOUSTON

When: 5 p.m. Friday

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 1150, 1330.

Update: Houston guard and reigning league MVP James Harden is “very doubtful” to play after leaving the Rockets’ loss to Utah on Wednesday because of tightness in his left hamstring, coach Mike D’Antoni said. Harden, who scored 31 points Sunday in his team’s loss to the Clippers, did not practice Thursday. Chris Paul will return after serving a two-game suspension for fighting.

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