Clippers’ offense drives off penetration ahead of open jumpers
When a small group of Clippers decision-makers evaluated their pool of coaching candidates last October, Tyronn Lue had something beyond his championship credentials working in his favor — his reputation as an exceptional communicator.
His first three months on the job have tested that. Coaches are straining to be heard inside empty arenas playing in-game music at sold-out decibels.
“With my Missouri accent and with a face mask on, they can’t really understand me too much,” Lue said. “We just got to do what we got to do.”
It has been difficult to hear Lue “at times” during games, star forward Kawhi Leonard said, but during timeouts and practices, pregame addresses and off-day film sessions, the coach has made his offensive philosophy heard loud and clear. The proof, players said, was Wednesday’s victory against New Orleans in which the Clippers assisted on 26 of their 35 field goals.
“Turned down good shots for great shots,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “And that’s been our motto this year.”
Under Lue, great shots are not narrowly defined as the closest. By scoring an NBA season-low four points in the paint during the first half against the Pelicans, the Clippers continued a season-long trend that has seen the team attempt the third-fewest shots inside the restricted area. Only a third of the team’s points are scored within the paint, which ties for the league’s second-lowest percentage.
To be clear, one of Lue’s top priorities calls for the ball to touch the paint, whether via a guard’s drive or entry pass to a big man. He just cares little about where it travels from there — so long as it leads to an open look.
A league-leading 36% of their shots have been taken when the closest defender is between four and six feet away, a range the league defines as an “open” look. Conversely, just 6.9% of attempts have come with a defender less than two feet away.
“The paint attack is first and foremost,” said forward Paul George, who has made more than half of his open three-pointers this season. “A lot of our threes were set up from us driving to the paint and kicking it out. Paint first, spread out, after we’ve done our job of attacking and seeing what we have at the rim, and make plays from there.”
It’s why Lue essentially shrugged off being outscored by 32 points in the paint against the Pelicans. Shots at the rim will forever remain high-percentage looks, but so long as the shot is open, Lue seems to have little preference where it is taken.
It helped against the Pelicans, whose defense is set up to pack the paint and cut off driving lanes but could not close passing lanes. Nearly two-thirds of the Clippers’ shots Wednesday were taken with a defender at least four feet away. They took 32 open three-pointers and made half of them.
“We are No. 1 in the league in catch-and-shoot threes right now, so we’re doing a good job of getting into the paint, and when teams are helping or overreacting, we’re doing a good job of spraying it out for threes, or we’re making a swing-swing pass for a guy to make a shot as well,” Lue said. “We just got to continue to keep doing that, just take what the defense gives us.”
Though built around the one-on-one talents of Leonard, George and Lou Williams — a trio that ranks among the league’s best at creating their own shot — the Clippers’ offense has been average shooting off the dribble. Instead, they’ve struck gold by making the extra pass.
The Clippers (8-4) lead the league with 1.38 points per possession on all catch-and-shoot opportunities, but their efficiency jumps to 1.61 points on possessions that end with an unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunity, per Synergy Sports. Nearly 81% of those unguarded catch-and-shoot baskets have been assisted.
No other teams come anywhere close in either category.
“PG, Kawhi and Lou are just great midrange shooters, so a lot of times we get into the paint or get into that midrange area, they’re taking the shots, which we want them to do, but also just having the awareness that when we do get deep into the paint and we penetrate, teams are helping,” Lue said. “They’re doing a good job of kicking it out, making the extra pass. So it’s a fine line because the scorers are great midrange shooters, but also being able to attack the basket, spray out open threes, which we’ve been preaching all season.”
Three starters are averaging career-high assists: Serge Ibaka (1.6), George (5.5) and Leonard (6.0). Leonard commended Ibaka’s ability to keep the ball moving after receiving a pass in pick-and-roll situations.
James Harden is reunited with former Oklahoma City teammate Kevin Durant, giving the Brooklyn Nets the NBA’s best Big 3 and hopes of challenging the Lakers.
“We want to share,” Leonard said. “We want to be better than the last game and we’re watching film and everybody’s trying so that’s all you can hope for.”
Nicolas Batum and Patrick Beverley, the other starters, have become the biggest beneficiaries. All 23 of Batum’s made three-pointers, and 22 of Beverley’s 24 makes from deep, have come off assists that have found the starters, more often than not, waiting for the ball just out of reach of their nearest defender.
“We’re not going out there just launching threes, but I think [Leonard], PG, Lou, they’re making hell of a plays coming off pick-and-rolls,” Beverley said. “Most of the threes that we do shoot are pretty much open, so you got to give everyone a lot of credit.”
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket. Radio: 570, 1330.
Update: The Kings (5-7) have lost three of four, including losses to Portland and Toronto by at least 21 points. Rookie first-round pick Tyrese Haliburton is shooting 52% off the bench and averaging 12.6 points per game. Coach Luke Walton’s Kings staff includes a pair of former Clippers assistants in Rex Kalamian and Alvin Gentry.
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