PLAYA VISTA, Calif.—Great expectations are nothing new for these Los Angeles Clippers. They won a franchise-record 56 games last season, and they will have a chance to match that mark against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, with three games to play thereafter.
They've yet to play in the NBA Finals like, say, the Oklahoma City Thunder, whom L.A. will welcome to Staples Center on Wednesday. The Clippers haven't even sniffed a conference finals showdown like the one the Indiana Pacers put on against the Miami Heat last spring.
And yet, the Clippers aren't collapsing under the weight of expectations like the Pacers. Nor are they in danger of slipping in the standings like OKC is after slip-ups in Houston and Phoenix this past weekend.
How is it, then, that the Clippers, despite a laundry list of injuries throughout the year, are handling the stretch run of the 2013-14 regular season with such aplomb, when other teams on the rise are tripping over their own shoelaces?
Having Doc Rivers at the helm certainly helps. The pressure that appears so evident to those who follow the sport just doesn't register with the Clippers head coach, who's nearing the end of his first season in L.A. since leaving behind the Boston Celtics this past summer.
"I don't think we're sitting around thinking, 'Oh my god, we're the team that's picked. There's more pressure,'" Rivers said after the Clippers' practice on Tuesday. "I honestly don't believe there's more pressure to that, unless you just don't expect to win."
The Clippers certainly do expect to win. They just haven't lived up to those expectations yet.
Last season's squad fell well short of them—far enough, in fact, for the Clippers to cut the cord with Vinny Del Negro. That team went up 2-0 on the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round before losing four straight.
Rivers' arrival, for the price of a 2015 first-round pick (and a five-year, $35 million contract), occasioned plenty of pressure in itself. No longer would the organization be content to simply fill seats and sell sponsorships as "Lob City" stuffed YouTube's servers with highlight-worthy plays. That's not what anyone would want from a team guided by the most handsomely compensated coach in basketball.
Especially when that team's ownership has been criticized for its financial frugality as much as the Clippers' has.
Bringing Rivers aboard sent a clear signal that the Clips weren't going to settle for anything less than the best. To that end, this team has had ample opportunity over the last nine-and-a-half months to acclimate to the pressures of being a "targeted" team.
"If we're not used to that by now...I don't know," Chris Paul said at practice, noting that L.A. has played 78 of the 82 games on its regular-season schedule.
The Clippers' attention has already turned from those 78 toward what they hope will be many more that lie ahead in the playoffs. They're well aware that whatever challenges they face between now and next week will pale in importance to those with which they'll have to cope in the NBA's answer to the Big Dance.
In Rivers' eyes, L.A.'s core group has the right blend of focus and intensity to advance—and then some. "We have three very intense individuals, and they're our three guys, which I think is good for our team," Rivers said in praise of Paul, Griffin and Jordan. "I think it keeps guys on the edge. I think it makes our practices amazing, and I think that's good."
The key is to keep the club on an even keel, to ensure that the Clippers aren't overwhelmed by the stresses and emotions they're due to encounter. Rivers has his own techniques for helping his players cope with their anxiety and leading them back to equilibrium. He recalled instances from his days in Boston, when he'd have Kevin Garnett, never the coolest of cucumbers, sit in his office and relax while Rivers went about his business.
Breathing exercises and other forms of meditation can help, but in Rivers' opinion, there's no substitute for experience when it comes to dealing with high-pressure situations. "It's learned, and I think it's only learned through stress," Rivers added. "You just can't do it without it. I've found that the deeper you get into the playoffs, the more you can learn it.
"It's hard any other way. You just can't do it."
Experience is something of which this Clippers squad is in troublingly short supply. Only three members of the current roster—Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick—have set foot in a Finals game. Davis is the lone ring-bearer of that bunch (back in 2008, with Doc's Celtics), but his playing time figures to be limited from here on out in light of his in-game confrontation with Rivers during L.A's recent win over Houston.
"That thought doesn't really cross my mind," Redick said when asked if the Clippers are now a team against which other up-and-comers measure themselves. "I don't think it really crosses anyone's mind in here. We still have so much to prove."
They certainly have the talent to prove it, between Paul at the point, Redick on the wing, Griffin in the post and Jordan on the lob and the jam, as legendary Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler would have it. The returns of Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger from their respective setbacks would only bolster L.A.'s case further.
In truth, the case for consideration among the league's elite is one that only the Clippers themselves can make and only in the playoffs.
"Whether we're 2, 3, 1, 7, 8, you're going to have to play some really good teams to get to where you want to be. That's just inevitable," Griffin said. "Obviously, the home-court thing is great, but you're going to have to play tough games. You're going to have to play when you're down, when you're up—all those things.
"Really, this year, it's just about being prepared."
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