Clippers Making Room For Improvement Amid Madness of March Schedule

Clippers Making Room For Improvement Amid Madness of March Schedule


LOS ANGELES — It’s been more than three weeks since the Los Angeles Clippers last held an honest-to-goodness practice. By the time they get down to brass tacks again at their training facility in Playa Del Rey, likely over the final few days of March, a full month will have come and gone.

Not that the Clippers are waiting for the NBA’s always-brutal schedule to cooperate. Nor can they twiddle their thumbs in the interim.

“It would’ve been nice to get everybody healthy and then have days of practice,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “We haven’t had that, so we’re trying to do it through games.”

That practical approach has worked in L.A.’s favor of late. The Clippers swept through their three-game stint at Staples Center with relative ease, turning full-speed contests against the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers into reaffirming five-on-five scrimmages.

The starters did their part to set the table during this stretch. With Blake Griffin and Chris Paul settling back in after long injury sabbaticals, the Clippers’ top five seemed to find its collective voice again.

“The talk is huge,” Griffin said after the Clippers’ 133-109 annihilation of the Lakers on Tuesday—their 13th in the last 14 games between these hallway rivals. “The talk eliminates the small errors, eliminates the time we’re stuck and nobody rotates or nobody knows who’s behind them. It eliminates all that.”

By keeping in constant contact at that end, the Clippers have been able to dictate where and when their opponents shoot as their long limbs and quick feet move in unison.

“Everybody has an identity. Our identity is our length and our athleticism,” Rivers said. “The only way that we can use that is by getting stops. When this team gets multiple stops, stops in a row, then we become athletic.”

At this point, the connection between L.A.’s starters at full strength is nigh on telepathic. According to NBA.com, the quintet of Griffin, Paul, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute has posted the third-highest net rating (plus-13.2 points per 100 possessions) of any starting five that’s logged at least 200 minutes in 2016-17.

The second unit has started to follow suit. A day after watching the Knicks whittle what had been a 25-point advantage down to eight in the fourth quarter, the Clippers’ bench flipped the script against the Lakers, stretching a nine-point edge after one quarter into a 27-point divide by the five-minute mark of the second.

“In the past, when the starters have played well, the bench will come in and think it’s an offensive contest,” Rivers said. “Tonight, they came in and got stops and realized if you get stops, they even score more.”

Building those big cushions has allowed L.A. the leeway to do in the flow of NBA games what most teams can only accomplish with enough off days in the offing.

For one, their starters have hardly lifted a finger in the last three fourth quarters after piling up leads of 18 (vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers), 25 (vs. the New York Knicks) and 34 points (at the Los Angeles Lakers) after three quarters. Rather than sit idly by, they’ve lent their eyes, ears and vocal cords to those on mop-up duty late in games.

“You’re seeing us on the bench, no matter the score, we’re over there screaming out our defensive principles, to keep playing the right way,” Chris Paul said. “That’s one thing that I think really good teams and the great teams don’t do; They don’t play the scoreboard.”

Instead of simply running out the clock, the Clippers’ reserves have used “garbage time” to brush up on the playbook. During the final three minutes against the Lakers, with the game already well in hand, the fivesome of Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, Wesley Johnson and Brandon Bass focused on finding a play that worked and executing it over and over again—much to their coach’s delight.

However challenging the schedule, the Clippers haven’t had to brush up during blowouts alone. They’ve lengthened their game-day shootarounds and spent the extra time sharpening specific sets and drilling basics, just as they did during a six-week stretch between late October and early December that left no daylight for an actual practice.

“We’re just trying to find time whenever we can to get work in,” Rivers said.

The Clippers can’t count on those in-game reprieves unless they decide on their own to take a step back. The team had previously eyed Thursday’s road game against the Dallas Mavericks as a possible rest date for some of its key guys. As of Tuesday night, though, the entire roster was on track to fly to Texas, with player availability at the American Airlines Center still to be determined.

Between the pursuit of a top-four seed in the West and the lack of games left on the slate, the Clippers don’t have much time to waste getting their core in gear for a grueling playoff run.

“It’s nice to kind of get in that groove and have a game where everything's clicking,” Griffin said.

Now comes the hard part: keeping the beat not just from minute to minute or quarter to quarter, but game to game.