The Los Angeles Clippers miss Austin Rivers. You may be one of those backward-thinking people who still thinks he doesn’t belong in the NBA or only has a job because he plays for his dad, Doc. You may just think that Rivers is a bad backup or “trash” if you don’t hesitate with your hot takes.
But, even though he obviously won’t change the outcome of this series by himself, the Clippers do miss Austin Rivers, who’s currently out with a left hamstring strain.
They miss him because he’s become a genuinely good, impactful and valuable role player this season, one who’s improved pretty much across the board. He had career-highs everywhere in points (12 per game), rebounds (2.2), assists (2.8), steals (0.7), field goal percentage (44.2) and three-point percentage (37.1). There’s no doubt he’s been better this season.
His stats got a boost from his starting role in the absence of Chris Paul (for example, he averaged 16.4 points and 4.4 assists through Paul’s 14 missed games in January and February). However, the fact that Rivers provided more spark as a scorer and improved his efficiency so much despite the higher usage (especially after shooting only 33.5 percent from three with significantly fewer attempts the season before) is impressive.
Add on usually solid, energetic defense, except for a few lapses, and Rivers has been an important piece for the Clippers all season, no matter how expensive his three-year, $35 million deal was last summer.
So, while the Utah Jazz have the injury bug far worse as they continue without their defensive anchor and most important player in Rudy Gobert (hyperextension and bone bruising in his left knee), the Clippers are still missing their best backup guard.
For a start, there’s been more reliance on Raymond Felton than they’d like. Felton has been a good addition for no more than the veteran’s minimum, providing capable playmaking, some spells of physical defense (he can be a pest when he bodies up players with full-court pressure) and solid driving ability to give the bench some extra penetration.
Nevertheless, he isn’t as good as Rivers, and his perimeter shooting allows the Jazz defense to put far less stress on pressuring him than they would with Rivers, both in terms of the quantity he’ll attempt and his accuracy; Felton shot only 31.9 percent from deep for 2016-17 and made a measly two threes in the last 25 regular season games combined.
More so than Felton, though, Rivers’ absence means more Jamal Crawford.
If you’re a Clippers fan, don’t get me wrong: Crawford has moments where he’s great. He still bounds around the court on offense with silky, artistic handles that not too many players can match, especially guys nearing 40. He can create his own shot, come up with huge buckets in key situations and bail out the bench at times because of it.
However, the poor, early-in-the-shot-clock and contested-off-balance shots often outweigh the good moments, and 41.3 percent shooting this season speaks for itself (a streaky 36 percent from three is fine, at least). Overall, there are just as many eye-roll moments as fist pumps for Clippers fans.
Furthermore, Crawford’s defense is bad. Even though he can provide a little energy sometimes, there are plenty of possessions when he falls asleep and gets beat on a cut or is late to rotate, not to mention how his slender, aging frame can be attacked one-on-one.
Without Rivers and more Crawford, the Clippers’ defense takes a hit and their second unit shooting becomes more trigger-happy and less efficient. These issues are even more prevalent when Doc continues to give Crawford tons of minutes late in games and plays him over J.J. Redick, something that’s usually bad enough before even looking at Crawford’s 29.2 percent shooting (an ugly 0-of-9 from three) in these playoffs so far.
All of this leads to a problem that’s particularly glaring against the Jazz. Most noticeably, the issue of dealing with Joe Johnson, who couldn’t have been thriving any more as playoff “Iso Joe” in the first two games.
We look at Johnson’s game-winner at the final second of Game 1, and that was bad enough for the Clippers. A prototypical Iso Joe shot appeared in the form of a lowered shoulder and running floater in the lane over Crawford and an outreached block attempt from DeAndre Jordan. Crawford actually contested the shot fairly well as it went up, but he had no chance of holding Johnson further from the basket, cutting off the drive, and providing more physicality on the ball to force a tougher shot in the first place.
The Jazz and Johnson are actively seeking out Crawford, eyes bulging with excitement at the chance to beat him up in isolated situations. With the buzzer beater, the Jazz put Crawford on Johnson by using a quick pick-and-pop with Joe Ingles to switch Blake Griffin’s size and athleticism onto Ingles. Johnson made the rest look easy:
This isn’t all, though. Johnson has been a nightmare for the Clippers through both games so far, adding 13 points in Game 2 after his 21-point opener.
Here, in Game 2, after Felton started the possession covering Johnson, Iso Joe switches on and lands Crawford as his defender again after a double high screen from Derrick Favors and Ingles. To help Johnson, even more, three Jazz shooters stick to the arc to ensure Griffin is the only one nearby in the paint, and Johnson takes his time eyeing up Crawford before backing him right down the lane for a turning hook shot:
You can see something similar here when the Jazz sought out a matchup on Felton for Johnson by using a 4-1 pick-and-pop with point guard Shelvin Mack. Felton does provide some solid on-ball defense for the Clippers and, to be fair, he does his all here to get his body into Johnson and contest the shot as best he can. But it’s too easy for Johnson to rely on his size against the 6’1″ Felton:
With generally better defense and a bit more size at 6’4″, Rivers is a better option to help bother the Jazz’s bigger wings like Ingles, Rodney Hood and, of course, Johnson. Crawford playing so many minutes is something that Doc Rivers needs to watch, and more so than being a weakness against Johnson one-on-one, he’s simply a bad defender all around. The Clippers allowed 5.2 more points per 100 possessions with Crawford on the floor in the regular season and have allowed an extortionate 12.4 more in the playoffs so far.
Plus, reducing such easy isolation plays at all, especially late in close games, would be appreciated.
Thankfully for the Clippers, Austin Rivers should be returning fairly soon and hopes to come back for Game 4, per Marc J. Spears.
So, can Rivers lock up Johnson? No. He has a size disadvantage, too, at only 6’4″ to Johnson’s well-built, 6’7″ frame, but there’s no questioning that Rivers is a much better defender than Crawford. Rivers is good at shifting his feet to cut off opponents driving inside and is far better at using his body and quickness to get into players rather than bouncing off all the time.
Seeing as the Clippers’ clear-cut best perimeter defender (and underrated All-Defensive Second Team candidate) Luc Mbah a Moute needs to spend his time covering Gordon Hayward when the Jazz’s All-Star is on the floor, someone else needs to guard Johnson when the two forwards play together. If Rivers alleviates any of that burden from Crawford, that’s a small win for L.A. It’s not like Rivers is going to flip the makeup of the series.
With Gobert still out, the Clippers must continue to take hold of this series after upping their effort in Game 2, pushing the pace and being more assertive with their superior offensive talent. It was still a little too close for comfort when considering those improvements over Game 1, though, and a lot of that comes back to some of their defensive issues and partly how Doc has used his guards.
You can’t ignore Crawford’s defense or Felton’s shooting issues. Rivers’ return can help bolster the backcourt defense somewhat, operate as another ball handler and provide an extra dose of three-point shooting and driving ability. He can even give the Clippers the extra push to close out a series that should be 2-1 in their favor by the time he looks to return for Game 4.