PLAYA VISTA, CA — The Los Angeles Clippers were neither happy nor celebratory on the morning of New Year's Eve.
And who could blame them? They'd been blown out the night before on their home floor by the Phoenix Suns and were due to hit the court at the team's practice facility in Playa Vista just 14 hours after suffering through the sting of Eric Bledsoe's return.
Throw in the prospect of facing the defensive-minded Charlotte Bobcats on New Year's Day, and it's no wonder head coach Doc Rivers was less than thrilled about the prospect of Tuesday's rare in-season practice being a great one:
Still it's losses like Monday's 19-point shortfall against the hustling, energetic Suns from which the occasionally complacent Clips can learn and grow on their winding way to title contention. Rivers didn't pull any punches when evaluating his team's performance against the Western Conference's most surprising outfit.
"We were a bad team yesterday overall," Rivers said in regard to poring over the film from his team's subpar performance against the Suns. "Sometimes, you know what you're going to watch, and I thought it was pretty much true. I thought we did everything pretty poorly last night."
Now comes the "fun" part: forcing the players to soak in every poorly delivered pass, every missed assignment, every screen unset, every rebound uncollected.
Not because Doc's a sadist (which he isn't), but because he wants his players to learn from their mistakes—and because sometimes, the film reveals those damning details that memory seems so unconcerned with retaining:
Doc wasn't the only one who bathed himself in the Clips' most recent failures before hitting the hay last night. Jamal Crawford, who scored 15 points on a subpar 4-of-13 from the field, concluded from the tape that his team was caught flat-footed by a high-flying Phoenix squad, and that L.A.'s own inability to respond lent a lethal dose of confidence to the opposition.
"They gave it to us right from the start," Crawford said of the Suns. "They kept going and got more confidence. They had us playing on our heels."
To be sure, the Suns were red-hot before they so much as set foot in the Staples Center on Monday. They came in winners of eight of their previous 10 and currently sit just a half-game back of the Clippers for the driver's seat in the Pacific Division.
But Phoenix's success against quality teams on the road had been fleeting, at best. The Suns' victory over the Clips was just their third at the expense of a winning team away from the US Airways Center. Just three nights earlier, the Suns found themselves on the wrong end of a 29-point pummeling at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
So how can the Clippers prevent another slip-up against an improving team that's far outpaced preseason "tanking" expectations when the Charlotte Bobcats come to town on New Year's Day?
In Crawford's estimation, it all starts with better effort, particularly on the defensive end:
As Jamal mentioned, the Clippers can't expect teams to come in and cower before their colors. "We know we're a good team," Crawford added. "Just because we walk on the court, people aren't going to fear us. We have to take that respect."
They're aware of the threat that the Bobcats represent. This year's Charlotte team isn't the same one that lost 61 games last season and set an NBA record for worst winning percentage the season before that.
These 'Cats can defend; they've allowed the third-fewest points per possession this season, per NBA.com. They understand their roles, thanks in large part to first-year head coach Steve Clifford. And they have one guy, in Kemba Walker, who's not only playing the part of a go-to scorer, but doing so at an elite level in the clutch.
But effort will only get you so far, especially if you're the Clippers, whose defense, while easily a top-10 outfit statistically, isn't yet strong enough to compensate for a catastrophic lack of execution on the offensive end.
Make no mistake about it: that was the case for the Clips against the Suns. Phoenix rushed out to a 9-0 lead in the first minute-and-a-half of the game on the strength of three baskets scored off turnovers. By the end of the evening, the Suns had converted 20 L.A. turnovers into 18 fastbreak points, with steals accounting for 17 of those takeaways.
And it's not as though the Clips were torching the twine when they managed to hang onto the ball for ane entire possession. They converted just 36.5 percent of their attempts from the floor, including an unsightly 7-of-20 from long distance.
"I think we're still that team," Rivers said in reference to the Clippers not being a team that can rely on its defense alone. "I don't think we've graduated over yet to that point where we're awful on offense and still think we're going to win. That's a mindset that we have not gotten to, and that's fine. I don't expect us to be there."
Luckily for L.A., the Bobcats don't play the same brand of frenzied, pace-pushing defense on which the Suns have thrived this season. Charlotte succeeds not by forcing turnovers (19th in opponent turnover ratio) or upping the tempo (24th in pace), but rather by grinding out possessions, contesting shots (fifth in opponent effective field goal percentage), cleaning the glass (first in defensive rebounding percentage) and limiting its own mistakes (third in turnover ratio, first in points allowed off turnovers).
Then again, the 'Cats' early returns aren't entirely trustworthy. As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently pointed out, Charlotte have done their best work opposite the rest of the Eastern Conference's ample supply of mediocre competition. Even then, the Bobcats' 12-10 record against the East isn't exactly plaque-worthy, nor is their 0-5 mark against divisional opponents.
That being said, the Clippers aren't exactly in any position to take their next foe lightly. After all, L.A.'s lost three of its last four, including a pair of tough road games against the Warriors on Christmas Day and the Portland Trail Blazers the day after, and has Phoenix and Golden State breathing down its neck.
Beating the Bobcats, then, isn't about "bouncing back." Instead, it's about continuing the season-long process of building good habits, competing consistently and, ideally, creating a championship-caliber club out of a roster whose talent extends far beyond just the All-Star tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin:
That supporting cast should once again include one J.J. Redick by mid-January. The Clippers said that Redick, who's been out since late November with a broken right wrist and torn ligaments in his right hand, could return to action in time for the team's Jan. 15 home game against the Dallas Mavericks or their Jan. 17 visit to Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Knicks, which doubles as the opener of the Clips' annual Grammys road trip.
L.A. will have to continue to survive with Crawford starting at shooting guard. The former Sixth Man of the Year has poured in 18.7 points per game in Redick's stead, but has seen his shooting percentage drop precipitously on account of a string of inefficient outings.
But Crawford's accuracy is hardly the Clippers' most pressing concern at the moment. Better energy on the defensive end and sharper offensive execution would go a long way toward getting L.A. back on track, especially with a "Texas Two-Step" on tap after the 'Cats come to town.
So, too, might greater focus all around help the Clippers ensure that 2014 starts on the right foot, after ending 2013 on the wrong one.
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