In the fourth quarter, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed as if they might run away with what had been a tight contest over the first three periods with the Minnesota Timberwolves. With just over five minutes left in the game, Chris Paul hit a jumper to push their lead to 11 points. That should have been enough to coast to a victory.
Fast forward to the final possession of the game where the Wolves had the ball with 6.7 seconds remaining and were able to get three tip-in looks at a game-tying bucket that all ultimately missed, giving Los Angeles the 109-107 victory. What happened in those five minutes to get to that point?
The answer lies simply with the fact that the Clippers’ big men, namely DeAndre Jordan and Ryan Hollins were unable to knock down free throws when the Wolves intentionally fouled them. Hollins went 1-2 while Jordan missed all four of his freebies at the line. That allowed a couple of big buckets by the Wolves and got Minnesota back in the game.
I do realize this is only one game, but this is a serious issue for the Clippers. Coming into the season, we knew that their rotation at the center position was shallow, but that doesn’t really show glaringly until situations like this. Doc Rivers is almost by default having to play Jordan, which is a liability for his team when opponents can just foul Jordan. Options like Hollins aren’t viable, either, because Hollins isn’t a good NBA player.
When Jordan goes to the line and misses free throws off of intentional fouls, that’s detrimental to the Clippers for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the ultimate results for L.A. are empty possessions that allow their opponents to score unanswered buckets. Beyond that, the Clippers also get taken out of any rhythm because they aren’t getting the chance to run their potent offense. Even when opponents stop intentionally fouling, the Clippers have a hard time getting back into the flow that they were in before their big guys started being put on the line. The least discussed factor in this, though, is the Clippers defense and how this situation affects the team in that regard.
Los Angeles’ defense has been criticized a bit in the early going of this season, but it hasn’t been much of an issue because their offense is simply one of the best units in the league. However, when you talk about putting guys like Jordan on the line intentionally, that puts a ton of pressure on the defense to make stops, something that they haven’t consistently done this season at really any point.
The Clippers are going to be fine and will almost surely challenge for the top spot or one of the top spots in the Western Conference. However, down the stretch of big games or in the NBA Playoffs when things get close, they have to find a way to remedy this problem with Jordan and their center rotation and them being intentionally fouled. The answer could be a potential trade or even playing small-ball down the stretch. Whatever it is, though, they need to find it if they want to meet their expectations as possible title-contenders this season.