As the Los Angeles Clippers struggle to keep up their terrific pace down the stretch, it seems as if some of their flaws have been exposed and their luster worn off. It's creating a bit of a worry as the postseason approaches.
With just seven games left in the season, the Clippers have dropped four of their last five, the lone win coming over the New Orleans Hornets.
On top of it all, they've gone from throwing together solid, threatening winning streaks to trading wins and losses in the past month. Since the beginning of March they've put together a record of 7-8, with their most impressive win being a home victory over the New York Knicks just before the start of New York's current winning streak.
It takes a bit more trekking back in time to find their most recent win over an elite Western Conference team, beating the Memphis Grizzlies on January 14th.
Comparing the early-season Clippers to the recently downtrodden group results in some very obvious observations. They've played differently on offense and lost some of their aggression on defense. Both of these factors have been detrimental to their winning percentage.
Most obvious over the past month has been their relative lack of aggression on offense. They're settling much more often for three-pointers, moving from a mix of inside game (through Blake Griffin and some penetration from Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul) and outside game to a lazy, shot-settling offense.
The Clippers shot nearly 26 three-pointers per game in March, making just nine. That's nearly five more attempts per game compared to earlier in the season for just a single additional make on average.
Looking at their shot locations through the end of February and comparing that to their shot selection in March shows a very definite change in philosophy, or just attitude.
For the first five months of the season, over 48 percent of their shots came either in the paint or in the restricted zone (which accounted for just under 36 percent of their shots). In the last month, just a shade under 43 percent of their shots are paint or restricted-area shots (just over 31 percent in the restricted area).
Most interestingly, it's not that the Clippers are simply devolving into an isolation-dominant team as the Knicks did for the past few months before their recent winning streak; they're just running plays for three-pointers. Or, rather, they're not running plays to get into the paint.
Generally when a team gets lazy and quits going into the paint, you can expect an uptick in mid-range shots through more isolation possessions.
However, the Clippers have actually shot fewer mid-range shots in the past month, instead racking up 31 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, compared to 25 percent in the first five months. Meanwhile, the assist rate on their buckets has dropped a mere seven-tenths of a percent.
It's odd, but it seems to be a trend of laziness within the offense, which is much better than laziness leading to a break in the offensive plan.
Defensively you can see the same kind of loss in intensity.
The Clippers were aggressively playing the passing lanes for much of the season, averaging just a shade under 10 steals per game in the first five months.
Most alarming should be that their opponents have gone from shooting 43.8 percent against them through February 28th, and 37 percent from the three-point line, to shooting 47.6 percent in the past month and 40 percent from the three-point line.
So, the question is whether they're falling apart down the stretch or simply getting lazy. It seems that it could be a little bit of both.
On the one hand, it's easy to look at a lot of their losses and count them as unlucky, Matt Barnes' game-losing air ball against the Dallas Mavericks being the prime example.
However, they've actively become a jump shooting team, which can only be explained by pure laziness.
That's something that will likely dissipate in the playoffs, as will their lack of defensive pressure. Relying on five months of impressive basketball to discredit a month-long lapse seems to be a safe bet.
Plus, it's impossible to forget that they've got the best point guard in the game on their side.
We'll see once the playoffs finally do start, but in the meantime they might want to get back to playing intense basketball if they want to end up with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
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