Drew coached Crawford in Atlanta two seasons ago and made sure his former player would not beat him on this night by implementing a zone defense as soon as Crawford and the Los Angeles Clippers' vaunted second unit entered the game. The result was a scoreless first half for the Clippers bench, a subpar night for Crawford, who went scoreless through the first three quarters, and a 104-93 win for the Hawks.
“You’re going to see more of that going forward,” Drew told Crawford. “A lot of zone and box-and-one.”
Crawford began the season on a torrid pace, scoring at least 20 points in seven of his first 11 games and shooting around 50 percent from the field through his first nine games. Crawford, however, hasn’t been the same player since. Over his past five games he is shooting 35.5 percent (22-of-62) from the field and hasn’t scored more than 20 points since Nov. 17.
Not surprisingly, Crawford’s declining production has coincided with the declining production of the Clippers’ bench and the team's four-game losing streak.
“It started against Chicago, honestly,” Crawford said. “They started trapping as soon as I got the ball. It’s weird because usually when we’re in pick-and-roll, that’s when teams decide to trap. But they’re leaving their man. They’re trying to deny a lot more. They’re tilting. They’re adjusting their whole defense. It’s almost like a receiver in football. There’s no more single coverage; it’s a zone.”
There’s no secret that, for as deep as the Clippers are on paper and as good as their second unit looked through the first 10 games of the season, Crawford was the engine who made that unit run. They were only as effective as he was. So teams have made game plans to shut down Crawford as soon as he’s in the game; sometimes double- and triple-teaming him when he gets the ball, depending on who’s on the court.
The Clippers’ second unit excels when they are running in transition and creating easy baskets off turnovers. The problem is that Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf aren’t going to do much offensively in the half court. Opposing teams know that and are willing to leave them open to focus on Crawford and are also willing to take their chances with Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes taking outside shots. So as long as they protect the ball and shut down Crawford, suddenly defending the Clippers’ second unit isn’t as daunting a task as it may have seemed.
“It’s a copycat league: If a team does something that works, more than likely that’s what other teams are going to do,” Crawford said. “Sometimes you see it later, toward the playoffs or in the middle of the season. It’s a little early, but as teams are doing it, we have to adjust as well.”
Part of the adjustment for the Clippers has been for their players to move more, with or without the ball. Instead of simply standing around and being spectators when Crawford or Chris Paul have the ball, the Clippers need their players to become more active by cutting and slashing toward the basket.
“We have to do a better job of moving the ball and getting into our sets and getting everybody involved,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “As the games got more physical, we got more stagnant. It wasn’t for a selfish reason, but guys thought they could do it on their own and you can’t. You have to use your teammates, and our spacing was poor at times. They need to create other opportunities for their teammates.”
The Clippers also want their big men to be more active and engaged. They were far from that goal on Monday in their embarrassing 105-98 loss to the New Orleans Hornets, who were playing without Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon and sporting the worst record in the Western Conference. Blake Griffin finished with a career-worst four points on 1-of-9 shooting, while DeAndre Jordan only had three points on 1-of-4 shooting, with just one rebound.
“[Jordan] wasn’t involved,” Del Negro said. “It wasn’t just DJ, it was all of our bigs. They weren’t active. They weren’t physical. They didn’t set the tone for us from the start. It’s not just one guy, it’s everybody.”
The Clippers’ second unit were outscored 44-28 on Monday night, and only Crawford hit double digits with 10 points, getting seven of them in the fourth quarter. When the Clippers were at their best, through the first 10 games of the season, their second unit was coming into the game with the Clippers holding a single-digit lead, which they would extend into a double-digit lead in the second quarter by changing the pace of the game. That’s not possible when the Clippers’ starters struggle as badly as they have recently.
“The starters have a responsibility to get us off to a good start,” Del Negro said. “Other guys have to play well, too. It’s not just about one guy. Other guys have to get [Crawford] open and he has to do a good job of doing that. If they’re going to double-team Jamal on a pick-and-roll or Chris, the other guys have to know where to be on the court.”
Despite the Clippers’ recent struggles, Crawford still feels the Clippers' bench can help turn the team around and reclaim the form they had before their nightmarish road trip last week, which bled over into their homestand this week.
“We feel we’re the best bench in the NBA,” Crawford said. “There’s definitely a little slippage because teams start doing things to catch us off guard, but we have to counter that and I think we’ll get a chance to do that these next few games.”