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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Road Trip Blues or Same Old Sorry Clippers?

A few years ago, the San Francisco 49ers were beating the L.A. Rams for what seemed to be the millionth consecutive time and NFL Films cameras captured a classic, often replayed sound bite emanating from the jubilant 49ers sideline: "Same old sorry Rams." The Rams have long since moved to St. Louis and won a Super Bowl; after a 9-2 start this season, it seemed that the L.A. Clippers--once their cousins in Southern California sports suffering--were finally on the road to the playoffs instead of the road to Secaucus, home of the NBA draft lottery. However, the Clippers' fifth loss in six games raises this question: Are the Clippers simply experiencing road trip blues or are they reverting back to being the "same old sorry Clippers"?

The Clippers shared first place in the Pacific Division with the Phoenix Suns before losing 97-75 to the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse on Wednesday night. Elton Brand, touted as an MVP candidate during the first month of the season, lived up to that billing, leading the Clippers with 29 points while contributing 12 rebounds. Center Chris Kaman had a game-high 16 rebounds, nine of which came on the offensive glass, which is not surprising considering he missed numerous point blank attempts en route to shooting 6-17 from the field. Sam Cassell, who provided such a spark when the Clippers were doing well, struggled mightily, shooting 2-10 from the field and finishing with four points and three assists. In the first half he missed all four of his field goal attempts and was whistled for three fouls in less than 14 minutes of playing time; he sat out the last 4:39 of the half after being slapped with a technical foul for complaining about being called for an offensive foul.

The Clippers started the night as the best free throw shooting team in the league, but connected on only 9-18 versus the Pacers. The Clippers have only won six of their last 14 games. Part of the problem is the absence of small forward Corey Maggette (21.7 ppg) due to injury. In his postgame standup, Coach Mike Dunleavy noted, "We're missing three of our top eight players. There is nothing you can do about that. All teams go through it at some point. It is what it is." Dunleavy did not fault the effort of his players, pointing out that the Clippers forced 21 turnovers while only committing 11; strangely, the Pacers scored more points off turnovers than the Clippers (12-9). Dunleavy said, "We had the easy shots, but they just were not falling...I didn't really find fault with our shots, but we just missed too many layups." In his postgame remarks, Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle also mentioned that the Clippers missed some shots that they would normally make. Stephen Jackson led the Pacers with 24 points and Carlisle praised his defense against Cuttino Mobley, who shot 6-19 and scored only 13 points. Danny Granger provided a big lift off of the bench with 16 points (shooting 8-11 from the field), seven rebounds and three steals. Carlisle also singled out the offensive creativity of point guard Jamaal Tinsley, who had 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds; he seemed to get a little too creative at times, resulting in eight turnovers. After the game, Tinsley said, "We went out and worked hard and tried to cut back on turnovers. I personally need to work on that a little bit. I think I had too many tonight. I wanted to be aggressive, take charge, take good shots and direct the team."

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Notes From Courtside:

Although Cassell had an off night, watching him warm up before the game provided some insight into why he is usually such a deadly offensive player. Cassell started on the left baseline and swished several jumpers in a row from 18-20 feet out. Then, as if he were playing "Around the World," he moved up to the foul line extended and again nailed several jumpers in the 18-20 foot range. He proceeded to go to the top of the key, the right foul line extended and then the right baseline before shooting some free throws. Cassell is the master of the mid-range game and knows how to get his shot off against bigger and quicker opponents. Cassell has never had blazing speed or tremendous jumping ability, but he understands the game and his opponents so well that he is able to consistently obtain open shots.

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On more than one occasion Dunleavy has employed the so-called "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy when his team is trailing, instructing his players to intentionally foul Shaquille O'Neal (or whoever the opponents' worst free throw shooter is--for instance, Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons in a recent game), hoping to take advantage of missed free throws to mount a comeback. Possible drawbacks to this tactic are (1) the stoppage of play allows the other team to set up its half court defense and (2) if the other team shoots 50% from the free throw line then the team employing the "Hack-a-Shaq" must shoot more than 50% on two pointers (or hit a lot of threes) to gain any ground--if Shaq is fouled four times and makes four of eight free throws and the Clippers make two of four two point field goals on the ensuing possessions, then both teams have scored four points. Of course, if Shaq makes more than 50% of his free throws then the tactic completely fails (unless the Clippers make a barrage of three pointers). Some coaches and observers swear by the "Hack-a-Shaq," while others are more apt to swear at it, saying that it violates the spirit of the game and, in any case, is not effective. I don't buy the first argument: if anything violates the spirit of the game, it is that there are NBA players who are paid millions of dollars and shoot poorly enough from the free throw line to make this tactic plausible; it is within the rules to try to take advantage of such players and the coach's job is to maximize his team's chance to win. As for whether or not it is effective, before the Pacers game I asked Dunleavy about this. Read his remarks and judge for yourself:

"There are two parts to it--they have to cooperate by missing the free throws and you have to get the rebounds. If you are successful at those parts, it helps you in a lot of ways: you can stop a hot hand on their side, breaking their momentum; your flow is still going because you're scoring and they're not doing it to you; coming back the other way, their guys have not had a lot of touches, so when they do get shots they are not necessarily going to make them."

I asked Dunleavy, "You don't buy into the idea that it perhaps allows the other team to entrench their defense because you can't really run against them off of a missed free throw?"

He replied, "If we've been coming down and scoring anyway, I'm not worried about their defense. I make the decision that we would rather have our chance to score and not give them possession at the other end. The other thing that is going on is you're stopping the clock totally. If the clock is running and you're behind, you're going to lose the game on time alone."

I asked Dunleavy if there is a certain predetermined time/score situation that he uses as a guideline for employing this tactic and he said, "It's all by feeling."

posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM

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