Three weeks into the NBA season, only two teams have yet to win a game decided in the final minutes.
One is the Washington Wizards, a rebuilding team for whom struggles were predictable.
The other is the championship-aspirant Clippers, whose inability to close out close games is but one of several issues contributing to a 3-7 start, including six consecutive losses.
The Clippers are 0-5 in games within five points in the last five minutes, the NBA’s self-defined “clutch” time. Even Memphis, which owns the league’s worst record, owns two such wins — including outlasting the Clippers by four on Sunday.
What began with a two-point loss at Utah in the season’s second game continued in an overtime loss to the Lakers in which the Clippers’ roster was in flux from its trade for James Harden — missing four players and with Harden yet to suit up. But the last three losses — by seven points at Brooklyn, three points to Denver and the Memphis loss — have come while trying to figure out how best to incorporate Harden into the roster.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said he had watched the last five minutes of losses to Utah, the Lakers, Memphis and Denver “10 times” for answers.
But here are the broad strokes: In clutch scenarios, the Clippers are scoring 106 points per 100 possessions, about seven points fewer than its season average. They are allowing 140 points per 100 possessions, however — nearly 30 more than their season average.
Defensively, the Clippers often cannot end possessions and get stops — a flaw that is not limited to solely their clutch moments, but has stood out even more in a game’s final possessions. In clutch scenarios, the Clippers have collected only 34.6% of available defensive rebounds — the worst rate in the league by a vast margin. Perhaps relatedly, the Clippers are allowing second-chance points in clutch scenarios at the league’s second-worst rate, and rank dead last in points in the paint allowed.
Given rebounding problems have stretched back several seasons, sending out long-armed, switchable defenders such as Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington in the trade for Harden, and the knee injury to backup center Mason Plumlee that has led Lue to play smaller lineups down the stretch of games, the struggle to get stops isn’t a total surprise.
“In those last five minutes we’re giving up 1.40 points per possession down the stretch of games and so that’s when we got to be better defensively,” Lue said. “Even if you’re scoring or not, defensively, you got to be good, you got to lock in, can’t give up offensive rebounds, can’t give up straight-line drives, things like that, we got to be better with.”
It is, however, striking how hard it has been to score for an offense headlined by two former MVPs (Harden and Russell Westbrook), a Finals most valuable player (Kawhi Leonard) and one of the league’s smoothest scorers (Paul George).
The Clippers have made 25.5% of their clutch shots, the league’s third-worst mark. Their opponents, meanwhile, have made 48.9% of their shots. All of it has led the Clippers to be outscored by 21 points in 23 “clutch” minutes.
Lue felt the offense had done a “good job of getting to our spots for the most part,” while acknowledging that Leonard and George often take mid-range shots that are a higher degree of difficulty.
Leonard has shot five for 18 in clutch scenarios, Westbrook is 0 for four, Harden is one for four and George is three for nine, though he has also gotten to the free-throw line a team-high 13 times. Lue also felt opponents such as Denver specifically game-planned to take the ball out of Leonard’s hands by blitzing a second defender toward him, which was different than the Nuggets’ defense against Harden and George.
“Against Denver, PG was in a good rhythm and a good flow, so we kind of went through him a lot more, but I do definitely got to get Kawhi more shots in that fourth quarter, make sure he has a rhythm,” Lue said.
A significant factor comes back to the fundamental growing pains of a team learning how to play together. The Clippers are essentially running two offenses, as Lue acknowledged.
One is designed to maximize space for Harden to operate pick-and-rolls or create offense out of isolations. Out of 99 players this season who have been the ballhandler in at least 20 pick-and-rolls, Harden’s 1.1 points per possession average ranks 14th, according to Synergy. And though he has only been in isolation 11 times, per Synergy’s data, the Clippers are scoring 1.3 points per such possession, the third-highest average out of 75 players with a minimum of 10 isolations.
The other offensive style is what the team spent its training camp working on. It is tailored around George and Leonard’s play styles, and involves teammates away from the ball making opportunistic cuts. The cut-and-run offense preached during the preseason can’t be thrown out now, even after the addition of yet another isolation-heavy player in Harden, Lue said.
“It’s got to be more reads now,” Lue said. “We got to understand when James has the ball, we want to stay spaced. When Kawhi and PG had the ball, we want to clear that slot to make sure they can get off and get to their spots.
“And so like I said, it’s been a process and guys are getting a little confused at times, but we just got to keep working with it and we’ll get better at it.”