DA's Morning Tip
Clippers continue to search for consistency
LA still deals with flashes of title-contender play countered with disappointing let-downs
Paul Pierce was scowling.
The Clippers had just smashed the Cavs on national TV, breaking a three-game losing streak. They looked like one of the top two or three teams in the league, throttling the East’s clear top team, on the road, and making it look easy. Which is why Pierce was scowling. Because two nights earlier, Los Angeles had blown an 18-point lead and lost to the lowly Nets.
“I was a little upset, because this game shows me how good we can be, and how we keep playing to the level of our opponents,” Pierce said. “You can’t look at this game and the game we had against the Spurs, and then see how we played against the Nets and some of the other teams, and not see that. We have to stop playing to the level of the opponent.”
Pierce hasn’t played much so far in this, his final NBA season, in his hometown. But the Truth’s word still carries weight in the locker room; he has a championship to his name, and only newcomer Mo Speights, who won one in Golden State two years ago, can say the same. And the hunt for a ring is the only pursuit in Los Angeles.
It’s the only reason the Clippers got Doc Rivers from Boston, and Chris Paul from New Orleans. It’s the only reason Steve Ballmer spent $2 billion to buy the team in the wake of former owner Donald Sterling’s banishment by the NBA. It’s the only reason DeAndre Jordan changed his mind in the summer of 2015 and walked away from a verbal agreement with Dallas as a free agent to return to Cali.
And it’s why last week’s embarrassing back-to-back-to-back road losses before the Cleveland game, to Detroit, Indiana and Brooklyn, grated on them so much.
“Championship caliber teams don’t lose two in a row,” Jordan said, “and they damn sure don’t lose three in a row.”
Yet the Clips have smoked Portland in Portland, Memphis in Memphis and San Antonio in San Antonio. They’ve dispatched the Bulls and Raptors and Jazz. They lead the league in defensive rating (99.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats) and are fifth in the league in offensive rating (109.4 points per 100).
Their starting five is the best in basketball, and their bench has multiple shooters in Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Speights and Raymond Felton — “gunslingers,” as Doc Rivers likes to say — that each has had postseason success and have high don’t-give-a-damn meters.
The wins over Cleveland and New Orleans a night later salvaged the trip, leaving the Clippers comfortably right off of Golden State’s shoulder in the Pacific and in the Western Conference — but don’t quiet the questions that continue to hang over Ballmer’s investment. If there was some internal strife a couple of years ago, that’s old information today; the players hang with each other and eat together regularly and often (if they see Doc Rivers in the same restaurant, he pays the players’ bill). Yet the years of successive playoff failure hang in the air, pockmark every conversation from the outside.
Last year’s first-round loss to Portland, in which Blake Griffin and Chris Paul went down within minutes of one another with series-ending injuries in Game 4, with the Clippers up 2-1 in the series, was but the latest horror. Over the previous three seasons, L.A. was a collective 11-21 against Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
OKC, of course, is no longer the same animal. But the wins over Cleveland, San Antonio, Memphis and Chicago carry some heft to them.
“It also says, last year, we didn’t do well against the elite teams,” Rivers said. “Now, we’re doing well, and that’s what we’ve got to keep doing.”
Add to that the possibility that Paul and Griffin can each become free agents next summer, and the future, as the late football coach George Allen was fond of saying, is now.
“It’s funny,” Paul said Thursday. “I don’t watch too much (sports commentary), but to hear everybody’s observations of what they think, what this is, or isn’t …I think it’s just competition. We want to win. We have guys that have done this and done that, but a lot of guys that haven’t won ultimately. For us, it’s not about going out there and worrying about all the talking, or this game or that game. For us, it’s about the consistency and just building and building, and hoping that all the chemistry is there at the right time.”
But the Clippers are no longer leaving that to chance. Years after most teams invested heavily on the analytics/player development side of their basketball teams, the Clips are finally catching up. They had not made wearables such as Catapult with its GPS that measures player movements and stress levels on the body, a regular part of their monitoring of their players and preventative measures against future injuries. Now, they do.
The Clippers named former assistant and longtime NBA head coach Lawrence Frank their Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations last summer, as part of a massive front office restructuring. Frank has oversight over that side of the operation and gives Rivers, who’s had final say on personnel since coming to L.A., someone to compare notes and/or argue with in the meeting room. Every good organization needs creative tension; the Clippers are no different.
They hired Mark Simpson, long of the Thunder, to be their new Director of Performance, and Ross Flowers, a former senior sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee, as their Director of Sports Performance Psychology. Frank’s new right-hand man came from the Spurs; the Clips beat out several teams for veteran assistant coach John Welch. The team has significantly beefed up its college and pro scouting staffs and provided more resources for its analytics department. It’s okay if you’re not first, but for far too long, the Clippers were last in everything.
With Ballmer pushing the envelope at every turn — he is dead serious, I’m told, about a new arena for the team to get it out of Staples Center, where the team still feels like second-class citizens to the Lakers — the team can spend in any direction if it’s value-added.
Rivers was at home with that kind of number crunching in Boston, where the Celtics kept Kevin Garnett and Pierce’s minutes down later in their careers. “Doc is an information hound,” a member of the organization says. So if the performance people, seeing a big stretch of games coming up, think it’s good for Griffin to sit out a game for rest, they make the call. And thus Griffin was a healthy scratch in Brooklyn.
He argued, strongly, that he was fine. He has his own team of trainers and therapists, too. But in the end, he sat.
We’ve just got to bring it. Some nights you’re not going to shoot it as well, like in the game at Indiana. But the defensive end has to be constant, and that’s an effort thing.
“As a player, it’s hard to leave your teammates out there, so to speak,” Griffin said. “That’s kind of how I look at it. But it’s something that, like you said, they’ve put a lot of money into. There’s a lot of science behind it. It’s not just a guessing game, it’s not just like, ‘Oh, okay, this game.’ They’ve showed that to me, which helps their case. It’s still hard. I still made my case, but it’s hard. The thing that’s most important is the big picture, and that’s getting to the end of the season healthy and in the playoffs. If this helps, then we have to buy into it.”
Everything is scrutinized now for its potential effect down the road. They were 14-2 the day before Thanksgiving, after beating Dallas in Dallas by 20. But they started smelling themselves as the road trip continued.
“It was coming so easy,” Crawford said. “We were up (in games) by 30 or 40. Like, I’m not sure we were feeling ourselves. But we got a little complacent. It was just coming so easy. We were up 30. We were up 40 — sometimes in the first half. So sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. I’d rather that happen earlier in the season than later.”
Detroit, playing well, beat them. Indiana, not playing so well, beat them. And Brooklyn, not playing all that well, but playing harder, beat them, with Nets guard Sean Kilpatrick getting Paul, mainly, for the brunt of his 38 points.
“To start out as well as we did, and to come out on a road trip, knowing the importance of every game, and to let three games like that fall, it’s tough,” Paul said. “…Probably a little slippage. We haven’t practiced as much. No excuses. It starts with myself and the other leaders of the team. We’ve just got to bring it. Some nights you’re not going to shoot it as well, like in the game at Indiana. But the defensive end has to be constant, and that’s an effort thing.”
Superior effort was on display in Cleveland. Jordan handled Tristan Thompson at the rim. Griffin went at Kevin Love early and often, and then became the secondary playmaker he’s excelled at the last couple of years, tying his career high with 11 assists. Redick was locked in, making 9 of 13 shots from the floor en route to 23 points.
And Mbah a Moute did a stellar job keeping James from dominating. No, he’s not a LeBron Stopper or any such nonsense; all you can do is make a superstar work for his points. And that’s what Mbah a Moute does against most of his assigned opponents.
He doesn’t and shouldn’t get all the credit; defense is a team thing, and Mbah a Moute didn’t guard these guys all the time. But: Kawhi Leonard was 3 of 13 against the Clips. Andrew Wiggins was 8 of 24. Jimmy Butler was 5 of 18. And James was 5 of 14. Among regular starters at the three, Mbah a Moute’s defensive rating of 101 is tied with Kevin Durant for the best in the league. The Clips’ frontcourt is a monster to get through.
“We can switch, three, four five. That’s a big thing,” Redick said. “For a lot of teams, 3-5 pick and rolls, LeBron-Tristan pick and rolls, we can just switch ‘em. Blake, when he’s on Kevin Love, we can switch ‘em. There was that one play where Love tried to post (Mbah a Moute) in the second half and took like seven dribbles, and didn’t move him. Luc is as good guarding anyone in the post as I’ve seen. He’s just strong, low to the ground, and he uses that off hand to kind of jab at the ball. That’s the biggest thing. We’re able to switch with him so much with him on the floor.”
Griffin is healed from both the torn left quad that bothered him throughout last season and was aggravated in the playoffs, and the broken hand he suffered in a fight outside a Toronto restaurant with his friend, Mathias Testi, in February. (Griffin doesn’t speak much about the latter; Testi, who worked in the equipment department with the Clippers, is no longer with the organization.) Paul looks just as good as ever, leading the league in steals and currently ranking fifth in assists. He continues to lead as few can these days, demanding the Clippers improve their habits and find an identity.
“I think it goes back to consistency,” he said. “I felt like us as pros, you work out constantly. I even say that about Brooklyn. No matter what, when we’ve played them twice this year, going into the game we were like, they’re going to play hard. You know that’s what you’re going to get from them. I think we have to always wonder what other teams are saying about us. What do they know they’re going to get every night?”
That’s true of the bench, too, but it benefits the Clippers. One night it can be Crawford; the next, Austin Rivers. Speights lost 30 pounds last summer after coming from Golden State and averages 8.5 points in just under 16 minutes. (Alan Anderson is just getting into form and will be utilized in the coming weeks, too.)
And, there’s Pierce.
“Doc is keeping you…” I started, looking/fumbling for the right way to say this.
“On ice?” Pierce answered. “You can say it.”
Well, yeah. Pierce did have a sprained ankle at the start of camp, but Rivers says he’s in much better shape this year than last. And yet, he’s only appeared in five games so far this season. And Mbah a Moute is soldered in as the starter at the three. But Pierce’s time isn’t winter. It’s the late spring. Whatever he has left, he’ll show it then.
“Paul’s a champion,” Crawford said. “He didn’t come here to win 60 games. He came here to help us win championships. We’ll see him in May…that’s his time. We all know he’s one of the most clutch players in the last 20 years.”
Sunday, the Clippers came home and promptly lost to Indiana. Such losses are not uncommon in a team’s first game back after a long road trip. But the Clips don’t want to repeat much of anything from their recent past, even though it’s leaps and bounds better than the years that preceded it.
They need new memories, not the echoes of what has transpired before.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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