by Spencer Suk
After stumbling to a 5-4 start, the Clippers have rebounded with the most successful road trip in franchise history. They won an unprecedented six out of seven games with the only loss coming to an emerging Memphis Grizzlies team led by darkhorse MVP candidate Marc Gasol. It helps that the opposition was softer than usual; the wins came against Orlando, Miami (without Dwyane Wade), Charlotte, Detroit, Houston (without Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley), and Utah. Regardless, the Clippers won these games in convincing fashion and look to have snapped out of their funk. They became the first team in NBA history to have an average win margin above 11 in a road trip of seven games or longer, proving their dominance as of late.
A lot of the team’s ups and downs can be explained by the play of Blake Griffin. Griffin has increasingly become the centerpiece of Doc Rivers’ offense this year. He has the third highest usage rate (31.7%) in the league, as well as the second highest field goal attempts per game (18.5). For a frame of reference, Chris Paul ranks 129th and 51st in the two categories respectively. However, the results have been mixed. For the first nine games, Griffin was settling for too many jumpers and seemed reluctant to attack the rim. Griffin, whether by design or choice, drifted further and further away from the rim and saw his efficiency drop. Thankfully, the Blake we have all grown accustomed to seeing returned just in time for the road trip. He is back to driving to the hoop and posting up without second-guessing himself. Of course he’s still firing away a decent amount of mid-range jumpers, but he’s doing so a lot more selectively and in rhythm.
Despite miserable outings against Memphis and Detroit, Griffin has maintained respectable (although still slightly disappointing) scoring and rebounding averages. He did finish the trip on a strong note with 30 points against Houston and 28 against Utah, but the biggest change has been Griffin’s playmaking. Now that Griffin is doing more damage around the rim, he is drawing the defense’s attention and finding the open man. When Blake attacks before the double team comes, he is at his most effective. He can dominate almost anyone one on one, and has the vision to throw it up to DJ or kick it out to the open shooter if the help comes. This has given players like J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes wide-open looks, and they’re converting them.
But this is a two way street. Redick, Crawford, and Barnes hitting three-pointers has also given Blake a lot more room to operate, as opposed to the beginning of the year when teams were clogging the paint and willing to give up open threes to Barnes.
As a result, the Clippers scored over 100 points in all six of their wins. They improved to 10-1 when scoring at least 100 and have somehow managed a 5-0 record in the second game of back-to-backs.
While Griffin continues to get back into the swing of things, Chris Paul has been an absolute assassin. He managed the offense with pinpoint precision on the road trip and shot the lights out of each building he visited. Doc and the coaching staff have constantly tried to get Chris Paul to be more aggressive and look for his own shot. It seems like Chris has finally taken this suggestion to heart and is looking to pull up off the pick and roll more than ever. When he starts knocking down his 15 foot jumper, and finds his rhythm, he is much more willing to take three-pointers, especially the open ones off the catch. And the results have been incredible, as CP3 was 11-23 from deep on the trip. When Chris Paul looks to score, he is virtually unstoppable.
CP3 turned the ball over just 11 times in seven games, giving him an otherworldly assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.9:1 for the road trip. His shooting splits of 59.8/47.8/95.5 are flat out jawdropping. And to top it all off, Paul has been locking down opposing point guards.
Granted, Isaiah Canaan and Norris Cole both got hurt in the first halves against the Clippers, but Paul still managed to shut down just about everyone he’s faced. Steph Curry has been getting all the attention amongst point guards (and he should with the way the Warriors have been playing), but Chris is off to a fine start himself. Don’t sleep on CP3!
Although Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are undoubtedly two of the biggest reasons for the Clippers’ recent success, the real MVP of the trip was Jamal Crawford. Superstars can carry you a long way, but getting quality performances from role players is the only way you’re going to win six of seven on the road. DeAndre Jordan has been his usual self, cleaning up the glass and protecting the rim. J.J. Redick is starting to find his stroke, scoring in double digits in his last six games. Even Hedo Turkoglu has given a couple inspiring performances. But Jamal Crawford has been the role player saving our season.
Crawford is quietly having one of his best seasons at the age of 34. He’s currently shooting 46% from the field, something he’s only done once in his entire career (he did it in his second year) while still managing 18.6 points per game. He’s also on pace to shatter previous career highs in true shooting percentage, Player Efficiency Rating, win shares per 48 minutes, and win shares. The boost in efficiency can be attributed to the fact that Crawford is looking to score within the offense this year. His shot selection has improved a lot and only tries to break his opponent down one on one at the end of the shot clock.
During the road trip, Crawford scored over 20 points in 5 contests, hitting three 3-pointers per game, and he’s stepped up on the defensive end, despite being asked to guard taller and bigger players due to the Clippers’ lack of depth on the wings. In short, Crawford has been the lone bright spot on a questionable second unit:
Yes, Crawford’s +/- is undoubtedly boosted by the fact that he plays extended minutes with the starters, but if it weren’t for Crawford’s extraordinary shooting over the past month, the bench’s production would have been a disaster.
The Clippers have another extended road trip looming, and it’s going to be a lot tougher. In February, during the annual Grammy Road Trip, the Clips visit Utah, New Orleans, San Antonio, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Toronto, OKC, and Dallas. In order to come away with a winning record, the Clippers are going to have to play at a similar level to how they played on this last trip. Whether they can do that or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, let’s hope the Clippers continue their strong play and climb their way up the standings. In a crazy Western Conference, 11-5 is only good enough for 7th.