Just recently, things were starting to look grim for the Clippers. After losing Blake Griffin for an extended period of time due to a surgical procedure on his knee, the Clips saw Chris Paul and J.J. Redick sidelined with hamstring injuries. With Paul and Redick in and out of the line-up, the team lost six games in a row and surrendered the Western Conference third seed to the Houston Rockets. But things are starting to look up for the team as they’ve won three straight with CP3 and J.J. back at full strength, including an important win over the Memphis Grizzlies. The schedule in the coming weeks is a bit soft and should allow for the Clippers to make up some games on the Houstons before LA travels to Golden State on the 28th.
The injuries that Los Angeles has dealt with have obviously hurt the team record-wise, but the injuries have allowed for some of the Clipper’s bench players to blossom. One player in particular that has benefited by being thrust into the starting lineup is Austin Rivers. Rivers, who has seen endless scrutiny since being acquired by his father midway through the 2014-15 season, has been playing lights out since Griffin was sidelined. In the ten games that Rivers has started this season he’s put up impressive numbers of 17.5 points, 3.2 assists, and 3 rebounds per game while shooting 48% from the field and a scorching 46.4% from behind the arc.
Just watching Austin in the past few games, you can tell that he’s become much more confident in his jump shot and his finishing ability. Earlier in the year and throughout last season I couldn’t help but cringe every time I watched Rivers chuck up a three because I had no confidence in his shot making ability. But in these past ten or so games, I can honestly say I haven’t winced when Austin takes what used to be a questionable three-point jumper because he’s finally starting to become a reliable shooter.
The one critique that he has always faced was that he was a poor shooter and that opposing teams didn’t have to worry about his 34% three-point percentage. Austin has worked meticulously in the off-season with Clipper’s assistant coach Sam Cassell on his shot and his hard work is finally paying off as he’s shooting a respectable 40% from three this season (*cough* *cough* one-tenth of a percentage point better than Steph Curry).
His improved shot and increased overall confidence have also opened up more opportunities for Rivers to drive to the basket, which has been one of his strengths since coming into the league. Austin has always had a speed advantage against opposing guards or small forwards, but since they knew he couldn’t shoot they wouldn’t give him the space he needs to drive past them. However, defenders now have to respect his jumper, allowing him to get to the basket easier and finish at the rim. Since being bumped into the starting lineup he’s finishing around 50% of his drives to the basket and is drawing more fouls than any previous season in his career.
Rivers has started the majority of the recent games at the small forward position with Luc Mbah-Moute sliding over to the four spot in Griffin’s absence. When Blake is healthy and back in the rotation, it’s quite possible that we could see Austin get some run at the small forward spot with the starters instead of Luc. Mbah-Moute is without a doubt a more effective defender than Rivers, especially against star forwards such as LeBron or Durant but the offensive boost that Austin adds may be enough for Doc to give a Paul, Redick, Rivers, Griffin, Jordan lineup some minutes, just to see the result. But with the Clippers expect to hold Griffin out until after the All-Star break, Rivers will continue to see extended minutes and a starting role. If he continues his stellar play and sustains the numbers that he is putting up right now, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear his name start coming up in Most Improved Players of the Year Award discussions.