Clippers improve their pick-and-roll defense: Takeaways from win over Bulls

The Clippers' Ivica Zubac (40) and Terance Mann defend Chicago Bulls ballhandler Zach LaVine on Feb. 12, 2021.
The Clippers’ Ivica Zubac (40) and Terance Mann defend Chicago Bulls ballhandler Zach LaVine on Friday night.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Five takeaways from a 125-106 victory Friday night in Chicago that improves the Clippers to 19-8 overall:

1. I wrote about the Clippers’ struggles defending pick and rolls earlier this week, in part, with Friday’s matchup in mind.

Only three players this season had run more pick and rolls per game than the 11.1 by Bulls guard Zach LaVine. Among the 51 players running at least five such plays per game, LaVine’s 1.01 points per pick-and-roll possession ranked 12th entering Friday.


Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff that the strategy called for blitzing LaVine with the screener’s defender early on, to see how he fared. The short answer: not well for Chicago. The Clippers’ defense committed on 10 pick-and-roll possessions with LaVine as the ballhandler, and those possessions ended with two turnovers, two-for-six shooting and two fouls, per Synergy Sports.

Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka shook off injury scares Friday night, with Leonard scoring 33 points in a 125-106 victory over the Bulls in Chicago.

Feb. 12, 2021

The Clippers still ran some “drop” coverage — and it led to a first-quarter layup in which LaVine blew past center Ivica Zubac, who was waiting a step outside the free-throw line, for a layup. But the defense mixed up its coverages too, sometimes switching him onto a defender like Marcus Morris, and it led to results the Clippers could easily live with, including two misses and a bad pass that became a turnover.

2. A key factor in Lou Williams’ offensive turnaround: Watch how early he enters during the first quarter.

To start the season, Williams generally came off the bench for his first shift within the final three minutes of the first quarter. Though it was also common for him not to enter until fewer than two minutes remained. In the five games since a Feb. 5 win in Cleveland, he has entered with 4 minutes 54 seconds left; 3:57; 3:13; 7:10; and 5:43 against Chicago. Those five games also happen to overlap with his most consistent offensive performances this season, a run in which he has averaged 20 points per game. Coincidence? Lue doesn’t think so. Those kind of nights have been possible because he has had more runway to find his rhythm with Paul George out for four of those five games.

Williams is shooting 60% in his last five first quarters combined.

“Getting him into the game earlier, I think, has helped him,” Lue said.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 125-106 road win over the Chicago Bulls on Friday night.


3. On his way to 33 points, the sixth time in his last 11 games he has scored at least 30, Kawhi Leonard did something at a much higher rate than usual: He drilled his jump shots.

Since he entered the NBA in 2011 with a defensive skillset more refined than his offensive game, Leonard has undergone one of the most dramatic offensive improvements of any star in quite some time, moving from a role player to the best scorer on an NBA champion. Yet for all of that evolution, during his last six seasons his jump-shooting numbers have remained within the same narrow range — between 39% (2017-18) and 45% (this season). Even during those torrid last 11 games, his jump-shooting accuracy stood at 46%.

Against the Bulls, however, Leonard made 10 of his 15 jumpers — including nine for nine inside the arc.

4. The reserves are finding their rhythm. When will Luke Kennard find his?

After combining for 59 points, Clippers reserves spoke glowingly Friday about how the unit has settled into new roles. After years spent knowing Montrezl Harrell’s every tendency, Williams is becoming more comfortable playing a two-man screen-and-roll game with Zubac. Morris is 18 games into acclimating into his bench role. Terance Mann played important minutes yet again Friday.

Kennard, who arrived via trade from Detroit in November and signed a four-year extension in December, has gone through a serious transition of his own. He’s still working back from a year lost to knee injuries, a recovery that can’t be understated. But after making 40% or more of his three-pointers in 10 of his first 14 games, he has done it just four times in his last 13. He took, and made, a smart pull-up three in transition in Friday’s first half, knowing two teammates were running in for the offensive rebound, but such moments have been fewer and farther between recently. In his last three games, he has attempted six three-pointers.

5. With two games against Utah and another against Brooklyn, the Clippers’ upcoming six-game homestand is a litmus test of their ability to match up against some of the NBA’s most talented rosters. But against the less talented this season, the Clippers have generally taken care of business winning the games they are expected to, with an 11-2 record against opponents below .500.