A slump marked by seven losses in nine games has Clippers coach Doc Rivers “looking at everything” to find a fix.
To start, that means examining the efficiency of his starters.
The lineup of center Marcin Gortat, forwards Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris and guards Avery Bradley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was outscored by 20 points in their 10 minutes together during Monday’s 131-127 loss to Portland at Staples Center, a performance that underscored a troubling trend.
Since Dec. 1, that starting five has been outscored by 32 points in first quarters, the second-worst margin in the league during that span. The Clippers have trailed after the first quarter in each of their last seven games.
“We have to start at the defensive end, picking up our physicality and letting that fuel our offense,” Harris said. “We kind of just have to be a little bit more locked in. It also does help when we get better starts offensively to really get that feel and get ourselves that confidence.”
Rivers felt Monday’s game was lost when the Trail Blazers shot 58.3% in the first quarter and 63.6% in the third — the quarters in which the Clippers predominantly play their starters.
Could that lead to a lineup change to spur faster starts?
“There may be,” Rivers said. “We’ll look, but right now, the way we’re coming out of the gates, we have to be better.”
Of the 29 five-man lineups across the NBA that have played at least 150 minutes this season, the Clippers’ starting unit of Gortat, Gallinari, Harris, Bradley and Gilgeous-Alexander ranks seventh-best in offensive rating.
All that scoring has nearly been undone by their defense together — the second worst among that group.
Rivers isn’t considering benching Gallinari, Harris or Gilgeous-Alexander and there’s no immediate upgrade on the roster at center. Boban Marjanovic can play only in limited stretches because of his limited speed. Montrezl Harrell is energetic but undersized at 6-foot-8. With both Gortat and Marjanovic ineffective and Harrell ejected against the Trail Blazers, Rivers closed out the game by playing Gallinari at center in a small-ball lineup.
Gallinari played the role before this season because Rivers likes the problems it creates for opposing defenses and the space it produces for the Clippers’ offense. But it’s more a patch than a long-term solution.
“I just don’t like at the end of games getting outrebounded,” Rivers said. “We didn’t get crushed on the glass but it concerns you, especially last plays, you’re worried that if you miss a shot they get the rebound because of size.”
The Clippers seem to have more options from which to choose at the guard position alongside Gilgeous-Alexander. (The team has a full roster and is not interested in adding former Clippers guard Austin Rivers, who was waived Tuesday by Phoenix, according to a source not authorized to speak publicly.)
Patrick Beverley, a starter for the first 16 games, has rebounded from shooting woes to play efficiently in his last two games, and the Clippers outscored Portland by 18 during the 18 minutes Tyrone Wallace played Monday.
It was the second most Wallace has been used all season, and the usage was partly because the Trail Blazers defended pick-and-rolls by “dropping” the screener’s defender into the paint rather than step into a ballhandler’s path at the point of the screen.
“You thought he could go downhill [toward the rim] and he did that,” Rivers said. “I thought Ty was pretty good. I thought Ty was better than pretty good.”
The decision to remove him late in the game for Bradley, who had zero points and assists, rests on Rivers’ staunch belief in Bradley’s ability to impact a game with his defense. On Monday, however, Damian Lillard made five of eight shots (including all four three-pointers he attempted) for 18 points while being defended by Bradley, and CJ McCollum was two for two with a free throw, as well, against his coverage.
Bradley and Gilgeous-Alexander have played 392 minutes together this season and in that span have produced the lowest offensive rating (101.3) and field goal percentage (45.3%) of any of the 13 Clippers duos who’ve played at least that much together.