How the Clippers built a winning streak that has ‘changed everything’
Thirteen seasons into his NBA career, Nicolas Batum can feel the contours of a team’s season shifting underfoot. The lulls, the peaks.
There’s little doubt of what is registering now.
There are myriad ways to measure the differences between now and a five-week stretch starting in mid-February in which the Clippers scuffled to a 5-8 record.
In those five weeks the Clippers’ offensive rating of 111.6 ranked 16th, their 113.8 defensive rating ranked 23rd and their rebounding rate ranked 12th.
Since the winning streak began March 20, the Clippers’ offensive rating of 126 points per 100 possessions leads the league by a mammoth seven-point gap — the same margin that separates teams ranked two through 11.
A revitalized Clippers squad on a roll avenged an earlier loss by dismantling the Milwaukee Bucks 129-105 on Monday at Staples Center.
Their defensive rating of 106.1 ranks seventh. Their rebounding percentage ranks third. Their average margin of victory is 17.6 points. They are turning the ball over the third-fewest percentage of possessions, as well.
“We hit a little rough patch before we hit this streak,” guard Luke Kennard said. “Once we got back from our road trip we’re like, let’s get on a little roll, let’s get on a streak here and guys dialed in, they locked in. That definitely shows a lot of some character and just some competitiveness of this team so we want to compete, we want to win, each and every game.
“We definitely see something building here. We’re getting more comfortable with each other, that’s the big thing. Just learning everybody. A lot of new pieces this year, obviously, so we’re getting very comfortable and we know there’s another level that we can get to, as well.”
The improved numbers reflect a team that is “just paying more attention to detail,” star Kawhi Leonard said.
In Saturday’s win against Philadelphia, that meant giving up zero transition points to the league’s most prolific transition team.
Monday against Milwaukee, that meant holding the Bucks to 38 points in the paint — 10 fewer than their season average.
Even without the help of all-NBA defender Paul George, a late scratch because of a sore right foot, the Clippers held Giannis Antetokounmpo to 12 points in the paint just one month after the two-time most valuable player toyed with the Clippers’ defense on his way to 26 paint points.
“I think everything we’ve been working on and frustrated about early on the season, you can finally see it coming together,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Small-small pick-and-rolls, I think attacking the paint, making the extra pass to your teammate when they’re open, playing with more pace. Defensively, having a defensive mindset every single night. And you can see all the things coming together right now.”
Batum can pinpoint the moment he felt the season shift.
It wasn’t the first victory during the streak, a 27-point blowout of Charlotte. It was the 22-point rally against Atlanta two nights later that gave the Clippers consecutive wins for the first time since Feb. 15.
“Down 22 changed everything,” Batum said. “Something was born that night. You know, when coach took all the starters out and we came back and rallied up and win the game, Kawhi and PG and Luke finished the game.
“So I think something changed that night. And since then we’ve been great.”
The winning streak was also precipitated by Lue’s decision on March 15, sparked by a woeful defensive effort the night before, to shake up the starting lineup by removing Batum and inserting Morris at forward. Morris has made 47% of his three-pointers since that change and 62.5% (20 for 32) of his three-pointers amid the streak.
The Clippers have done this despite missing starters Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley, whose injured back and right knee, respectively, have sidelined each for two weeks. George, Leonard and Morris have each missed one game during the run, as well.
“We got a lot of lineups on the floor that you’ll probably never see again,” Lue said.
Yet from odd combinations have come a consistent effort and contributions from everywhere. Nearly one-third of the Clippers’ total points during the streak have been generated by just three former reserves: Kennard, who scored 21 points Monday in place of George, Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson. During the streak Kennard has made 14 of 20 three-pointers (70%), Jackson has made 15 of his 28 (53%) and Mann has shot 40%.
The Clippers picked a notable time to begin their push. To continue a streak that includes wins against East-leading Philadelphia and Milwaukee, another title contender, the Clippers must finish a difficult nine-game homestand that features matchups against West playoff contenders Denver, the Lakers, Portland and Phoenix.
“It won’t be easy,” Batum said. “But we know we got a good team to go very far this season.”
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