Team Defense Carries Clippers

Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Few Clipper players are considered strong individually on defense.

Together, however, the Clippers are effective. Just ask the Denver Nuggets.

Team defense has helped the Clippers take a commanding 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series against Denver that resumes Thursday with Game 3 at Pepsi Center.

In NBA history, teams taking 2-0 leads have won 94.6% of postseason series, and Denver has started 0-2 nine times, winning only once.

“For us, it’s all about our defense,” power forward and co-captain Elton Brand said. “We focus on defense all the time, we pride ourselves on our defense, and defense has gotten us to the point we’re at right now.”

The Clippers are in unfamiliar territory, needing two victories to win their first postseason series in California and second in franchise history.

They’ve done it with defense, holding the Nuggets to 36.5% on field goals, limiting fastbreak opportunities and harassing star forward Carmelo Anthony into a 14-for-41 shooting performance.

“They’re basically playing a box-and-one on ‘Melo,” Denver Coach George Karl said. “And they’ve done a pretty good job.”

In Game 2, the Clippers held the Nuggets to 13 points in the first quarter and 34 in the first half, setting postseason franchise records. It wasn’t surprising, players said.

“We’re just doing what we do,” swingman Corey Maggette said. “It’s nothing new to us, because this is just us.”

The Clippers finished first in the league in blocked shots at 6.13 a game, first in fewest fastbreak points given up at 9.79 and fourth in opponent field-goal percentage at 43.5%. They were 27-1 when holding an opponent under 40%, and are two for two in the series.

The Nuggets averaged an NBA-leading 20.2 fastbreak points, and hoped to run a lot at Staples Center, but the Clippers didn’t cooperate.

The Clippers limited Denver to 10 fastbreak points — only two after halftime — in Saturday’s 89-87 victory, and six in Monday’s 98-87 win.

“We feel like if we can stop their transition game, five on five, we’re at our best,” said point guard and co-captain Sam Cassell. “When we’re set, work as a unit, and understand what they’re going to do … that’s when our defense works.”

So, how have the Clippers, without many defensive standouts, been such an effective defensive unit?

“By watching a lot of film and working at it,” Coach Mike Dunleavy said.

The Clippers are all about “help” defense.

Because they lack team quickness, the Clippers rarely play straight man-to-man defense, relying instead on team-coverage concepts in which they help one another. Players are required to read, react and rotate based on an opponent’s offense.

That sometimes results in missed assignments and uncontested shots, and the Clippers have had problems against teams that penetrate and spread the floor well, but the plan seems to be working.

“We spend a lot of time on execution, and getting guys to where they understand and read, and that’s why it’s always a process when you come into a new situation,” said Dunleavy, in his third season with the Clippers. “The first year, I was going crazy, and the guys were saying to me, ‘Coach, we’ve never done this before. A lot of the stuff is common sense, but we just haven’t done it.’ OK, fine.

“I had to temper my expectations, a little bit, but I kept pushing and pushing and pushing. Last year, we were much better at it. Our numbers from the first year to the second year took a really good jump. And from last year to this year, we had another big jump, which was great for us.”

And so far, not good for the Nuggets.

The Nuggets suspended power forward Kenyon Martin indefinitely after he refused to play in the second half of Game 2.