CLIPPERS CHARACTERIZED BY ‘MENTAL TOUGHNESS’

PLAYA VISTA – A week ago in the desert the Clippers had every reason to give up.

They were trailing the Suns by 17 points, Blake Griffin was ailing from back spasms that tightened up as the game wore on, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Danny Granger were sidelined, and Doc Rivers had pulled all of the starters, sans Darren Collison, as they entered the fourth quarter.

But that’s when everything turned. The second unit sliced the deficit to six. The starters did the rest and the Clippers (55-23) completed their third second-half comeback against a Western Conference contender in a matter of four games.

The victory and the five-game road trip as a whole characterized the resilience of a Clippers team that enters Wednesday’s matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder still with a chance to surge to the No. 2 seed in the West.

It’s a position that seemed impossible given the injuries and the schedule, which included two seven-game road trips and playing the most games in the league through the first four months of the season.

“I think a great example [of our resilience] is our record right now,” Redick said Tuesday prior to practice. “We’ve had so many injuries, so many things happen to us. I’ve never seen Doc [Rivers] get too up or too down. He always has the big picture in mind. I think that’s carried over to our players.”

And it has shown on the court. The Clippers have paved their way to 55 wins using makeshift lineups, and overcoming the absence of Chris Paul for 19 games, or Griffin, or their Sixth Man of the Year for a month, or Redick. With four games remaining they are within one victory of the greatest season in franchise history, considering the adversity they have overcome, it likely already has been.

A year ago, when the Clippers won 56 games, they were often considered, by their own admission at times, front-runners, a team that tended to fall apart when things weren’t trending in their favor. That mentality has almost completely dissipated.

“The biggest thing that we’ve improved on is our mental toughness,” Matt Barnes said in Phoenix. “We lacked that last year and I think it’s huge. We are a resilient team now.

“We have a goal this year and no matter what our schedule is or who’s in and who’s out we’re going to keep fighting.”

And that fighting mentality is imperative heading into the postseason, a place that the Clippers had a 2-0 advantage in the first round a year ago and then crumbled to the Grizzlies in four straight games.

“We talk about it,” Paul said of maintaining their newfound mental toughness. “We’re not going to go undefeated during the Playoffs. There are going to be ups and downs. You’ve just got to stay the course.”

Barnes added: “I still think it’s something that we’re working on, but we’re making improvements. That’s our only weakness, our mental toughness. But I think we’re heading in the right direction with that. Besides that at every position we’re locked and loaded. We have a great staff, so if we so mental toughness we’re going to be hard to beat.”