When healthy, the Los Angeles Clippers are thought to be on the shortlist for contenders for the NBA championship title. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George remain two of the great superstars in this league, and the team is financed by the second-highest tax bill in NBA history.
But the Clippers came into State Farm Arena with just a 27-24 record and major question marks at their point guard and backup center positions. As a result, they deployed many lineups full of nominally wing players, even utilizing the 6’8” Nicolas Batum at center for stretches.
Still, Atlanta couldn’t quite figure out how to defend the Clippers’ bevy of three-point shooters and let the frustration with the whistle mount in a 120-113 loss on Saturday night.
John Collins got off to a hot start, powering the Hawks through his face up game in the post. In the below clip, Trae Young lifts to run his man, Terance Mann, into a Collins brush screen which forces the switch. This isolates Collins on the weakside against a smaller player, which is big matchup win.
Give Bogdan Bogdanovic credit here for first coming off Collins’ down screen, then sealing Collins’ man, Kawhi Leonard, with an up screen and not allowing Luke Kennard to switch the action on the baseline turnaround jumper.
You don’t see this from John Collins a ton. When Kawhi Leonard commits too aggressively toward De’Andre Hunter from the nail, Collins sees the open lane and puts the ball on the deck to get all the way to the rim.
“They were switching,” explained head coach Nate McMillan about Collins’ offensive performance. “We have to recognize where the advantage is, whether it’s on the perimeter. I thought we dropped it to [Collins] some in the first half and second half. In the first half, he was able to score sometimes. In the second half, he had good looks and the ball didn’t fall for him. You have to make your read those situations when teams are playing that type of defense.”
John Collins, who was 5-for-6 (83%) from the field in the first half and just 2-for-7 (29%) in the second half, finished with 16 points and five rebounds.
His teammate, Trae Young, struggled some in the first half but exploded in the second half with a 22-point outburst to give the Hawks a chance down the stretch. Young finished the night with 31 points and 10 assists, which pushed him past Magic Johnson for most 30-point and 10-assist nights in the NBA record books.
Here, Young uses his quickness to attack a closeout in a defensive scramble and finish in the lane. Despite always being the smallest player on the court, all but one of his 10 field goals on the night came from the paint.
Young remains arguably the best passer in the league with his ability to deceive the defense, like on this no-look feed to Bogdanovic in transition.
Kawhi Leonard orchestrated the Clippers offense to near perfection, taking advantage of weakside isolations and running pick-and-rolls with the large-bodied Ivica Zubac. He finished with 32 points on just 20 shots plus eight rebounds and four assists.
Atlanta was intent on trapping Leonard whenever possible to get the ball out of his hands, but he often made the correct reads to punish that tactic. Here, with Hunter and Capela blitzing Leonard as the ball handler, Zubac gets an easy roll and finish past a late rotating Hawks backline.
The Clippers were able to move around the Hawks’ perimeter defense with penetration as well. Here, Norman Powell slashes all the way to the basket and is able to finding Leonard spotting up in the corner. Kawhi Leonard finished with 5-for-10 shooting from deep, but compared to his more difficult step back attempts, this one was his easiest look of the night.
“Offensively, they were scoring with single coverage,” said coach McMillan. “What you try to do is mix up your coverage on them. Paul [George] and Kawhi [Leonard], they made us pay. They kicked the ball out, and those guys were knocking down threes. Pick your poison in that situation.”
“They were shooting right over our defense,” he continued later. “Getting the ball to the spot they wanted on the floor. Both Paul [George] and Kawhi [Leonard] did a good job of scoring against single coverage. I felt like we needed to break [their] rhythm by mixing in some zone, mixing in some traps, then they made us pay.”
“They’ve got two guys out there that are All-NBA type players,” concurred Trae Young. “It’s easier said on how to stop those guys than just doing it. They played really good tonight. Kawhi [Leonard] did a really good job of scoring when he needed to. [George] got everyone involved when he was getting trapped and stuff. And he was scoring early. Those guys played real well. Give them credit.”
“We got to be able to talk, be able to switch,” said Clint Capela. “If we see that we don’t like our matchup on defense, just go and trap and make them find another shot.”
Atlanta finished with 15 offensive rebounds compared to just six for Los Angeles and ceded only nine turnovers to the Clippers’ 14. This resulted in 15 more field goal attempts for Atlanta over their opponent with virtually the same free throws taken between the two sides. But the Clippers overcame this large attempt gap with a greater willingness to take threes and capable shooting from range. The Clippers drilled 19-of-39 (49%) three-pointers compared to the Hawks’ 7-of-27 (26%) mark from there.
The Hawks seemingly did everything they could do to narrow the gap, especially in the second half. They pushed in transition off misses and turnovers (a 24-7 fastbreak point margin), crashed the glass (a 17-11 second chance margin), and got into the paint (a sky high 62-32 margin) all in Atlanta’s favor. But when the opponent was scorching hot on all jump shots, it was all for naught.
Atlanta was able to close a late 14-point deficit down to four and five points respectively within the final three minutes. Off an errant entry pass, the Hawks raced down and hit Hunter for a wide open three to cap a 9-0 run and cut the margin to four points.
The Clippers responded to push the lead back to nine with just under a minute to play. But an offensive rebound and make for Clint Capela led to a difficult inbound with Atlanta putting on a full court press. Hunter stole the ball around half court and put up an airball three that Trae Young was in position to put back.
But the door on the game was firmly shut after two Paul George makes at the free throw line, and the Hawks fell 25-25 with the loss.
“They’re hitting threes and we’re hitting twos,” noted Young about the scoring location disparity. “They hit twelve more threes.”
Head coach Nate McMillan was asked about the refereeing affecting the play of his team, saying, “it starts feeling like calls are not going your way. We have someone over there with a video that is telling me when we should challenge. So we’re looking at that. You can basically challenge every call that’s made. But you can’t allow the officiating for the tough, physical play to become a distraction.”
With just 32 games left to to play in the regular season, the Hawks have a .500 record and find themselves eighth in the Eastern Conference standing. There is certainly still time for a late push towards a top-6 seed, and a completely healthy squad is a good first step toward that goal. But the Hawks are faced with a long two week road trip that begins late Monday night in Portland. Despite the loss, the Hawks played well and will have to keep that same intensity going forward as they look toward qualifying for the postseason for the third season in a row.