Guard Patrick Beverley called the Clippers’ defense “scary” after the regular season’s second game, and the fiery guard wasn’t wrong.
One game later, that defense gave up 130 points and one wide-open three-pointer after another in an Oct. 26 loss at Phoenix.
“One-thirty,” star forward Kawhi Leonard said afterward in an empty locker room, “isn’t going to cut it.”
There wasn’t much more to say because the Clippers themselves hadn’t had much to say on the defensive end in the first three games. Players’ communication about screens and switches, rotations and assignments, had been lacking. It took until April of last season for the Clippers to surrender 130 points or more. This season, it took five days.
Ever since that humbling night against the Suns, the Clippers’ defense has played like the unit Beverley imagined. The team has held three of its last four opponents to fewer than 100 points, with the only exception a 110-96 loss at Utah last Wednesday in which Leonard, the team’s best defender, sat out for rest. The Clippers rebounded to beat the visiting Jazz 105-94 on Sunday.
“We have more focus,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I think the Utah games were interesting because I thought that first game, they defended us, we didn’t really defend them back. And I thought the other night, we decided all right, we’re gonna defend a defensive team and that’ll make us win the game.
“I think they’re starting to have better defensive confidence, and that’s gonna keep growing.”
The addition of Paul George will help. The All-Star forward with a pair of surgically repaired shoulders could return as early as next week, which would coincide with the 10-game mark of the regular season that Rivers has mentioned when asked about George’s recovery time. George practiced Tuesday, but most of the workout was spent in non-contact drills.
“Guys are pretty banged up right now, so we decided less hitting, more brain,” Rivers said.
Yet the Clippers aren’t waiting for the addition of George, a four-time NBA All-Defensive first- or second-team selection, to clear up early issues.
In the four games since the loss at Phoenix, the Clippers have limited opponents to 99.7 points per 100 possessions, the NBA’s fifth-best defensive rating, and own the fifth-highest defensive rebounding percentage.
“We are trying to hold opponents to under 100 points,” Beverley said, “and we have been successful doing that lately.”
That success has stemmed from limiting what doomed the Clippers against the Suns. Through the first three games, Clippers opponents took nearly 24 three-point attempts per game in which the closest defender was six or more feet away — an average that ranked last in the NBA.
In the last four games, opponents have shot nearly 12 fewer wide-open threes per game.
“I thought our communication was kind of poor [against Phoenix] just because, you know, I’m coming from a different team, some of the other guys are as well,” Leonard said after Sunday’s victory against Utah. “Language is different once you get in a different system. I think that is starting to get a little bit better, and we are trying to take pride on that end.”
That improvement will be vital Wednesday night when the Clippers (5-2) host Milwaukee (5-2). With defenses hyper-focused on stopping reigning NBA most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have generated the most wide-open three-pointers in the league. Dating to last season, they are 28-2 when shooting better than 50% from the field.
“It’s really, you gotta contain Giannis, and then you know, we work from there,” forward JaMychal Green said.
When Leonard became the primary defender against Antetokounmpo in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, it was a pivot point that helped Toronto storm back from a 2-0 deficit to win the series in six games. There won’t be a rematch Wednesday, when Leonard will sit out the game broadcast by ESPN as part of his “load management” strategy. He is expected to play Thursday against Portland.
The league prohibits teams from resting healthy players for “any high-profile, nationally-televised game” at the risk of a $100,000 fine. The Clippers will not be fined because they received approval from the league office, just as Leonard’s absence from another game broadcast by ESPN against Utah on Oct. 30 was approved by the league ahead of time.
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket/ESPN; Radio: 570
Update: The Bucks (5-2) have won three consecutive games, with each victory by a double-digit margin, and are 3-1 on the road. The Clippers (5-2) are 4-0 at home. Giannis Antetokounmpo has averaged 27.7 points, 14.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists while shooting 61% from the field. With the Clippers’ next victory, coach Doc Rivers will become the 13th coach in NBA history with 900 wins.