When the San Antonio Spurs were winning championships, they relied on Bruce Bowen, a player without much offensive gusto but possessed the ability to bother opposing superstars on defense. The Boston Celtics had James Posey when they won the title recently. The Lakers, Trevor Ariza. And then Ron Artest.
We’re talking about guys who take pride in defending the other teams best player, who take more pleasure in slowing down LeBron James than if they were outscoring him.
Every team needs one. Every great team has one. The Orlando Magic haven’t had one this season.
Can Earl Clark, who obviously has much work to do before ever being compared to any of the guys above, be the Orlando Magic’s defensive stopper?
He sure looked the part on Friday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, coming off the bench to force Kevin Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer, into a 7-for-22 shooting night.
Clark played 21 minutes, 56 seconds — more than fellow power forward Brandon Bass (13:00) and Ryan Anderson (4:02) played combined — and despite not making a field goal, he played a key role in the Magic’s 111-88 victory over the Thunder.
“There are not many guys of his size and length that can move their feet and play defensively like he can,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “That’s what makes him unique.”
Van Gundy recently said the Magic lack the role player Matt Barnes was last season, a guy who focuses his energy on the defensive end of the floor and doesn’t always look for his own shot on offense.
Could Clark be that guy?
He’s realizing his best chance to earn regular playing time is by embracing that role, because no one else on the Magic is. Neither Bass or Anderson is that guy. Hedo Turkoglu certainly isn’t. JJ Redick is a good team defender, but not so much individually. Jason Richardson has the talent but has bigger concerns, it seems, than stopping the other team’s best guy.
There’s a chance, if he keeps improving, Clark could be a very crucial piece to Orlando’s playoff hopes.
“I told him when he first got here that he’s going to be very important to our success,” Dwight Howard said. “For our team, that’s what we want him to be – one of those guys who can lock down threes, fours and fives. He has the ability to do that.”
Clark still has work to do. He too often forgets the plays on offense, and he doesn’t have a full grasp of the team’s defensive rotations. But even when Van Gundy puts him out there and lets him almost-blindly defend the other team’s premier scorer, Clark has done a nice job.
“He is not an easy guy to play against. He likes guarding the ball,” Van Gundy said. “He knows where he’s gotta get better is in his team defense and into his focus mentally on what he’s doing and what his job is.
“If he does that and becomes a better team defender — he’s already a pretty good individual defender — he’s got a chance, I think, to be a really special guy on the defensive end of the floor, if that becomes a role he embraces and understands that’s sort of how he can make his reputation in this league.”