I haven't been sold on the Los Angeles Clippers, not for a long time. No matter how many points they score, it's defense that wins championships. It's an old, boring adage, but it's just the truth.
Slowly but surely, Doc Rivers' third-seeded Clips have changed my mind. Clippers fans can add one more believer to their ranks (a pure-bred Spurs fan at that).
Re-thinking everything has a lot to do with empirical evidence that can no longer be ignored. This team always had talent. It's always been athletic. It's always had imposing size in the paint. The pieces were there.
But the championship metal wasn't, not until now.
Wednesday night's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn't change that assessment. The Clippers were playing without the ever-dynamic Jamal Crawford, and Russell Westbrook was having one of those nights. The Clippers have battled OKC well this season, splitting their season series with the Thunder at two games apiece.
Should the two clubs meet up in the semifinals, you have to like L.A.'s odds.
For that matter, you have to like its odds to go all the way. The Clips went 13-2 in March, making them the hottest team of the month outside the scorching San Antonio Spurs. That's a good time to start peaking, and it's just as telling that recent losses to the Thunder and Dallas Mavericks were pretty tight games (each only six-point margins).
This is a perfect storm. The Spurs could struggle to keep their older bodies healthy. The Thunder could become over-reliant on their dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Houston Rockets could fall a little too in love with the three-pointer.
These Clippers have balance. They have all the makings of a team ready to open eyes, at least among those of us who haven't opened them already.
Getting Healthy at the Right Time
J.J. Redick missed 25 games due to a bulging disk in his back. It was the sort of injury that could have gone on even longer. Worse yet, it could have severely disrupted the Clippers' flow and chemistry. Redick is one of those guys offenses quietly rely upon, the spot-up shooter who's there when you need him, content to move around off the ball when you don't.
The Clippers dodged a bullet here. Losing Redick during the playoffs wouldn't have single-handedly thwarted their hopes, but it would have made it nearly impossible to advance beyond the second round (where the Clippers can likely expect to meet the Thunder).
L.A. has been fine without Redick during the regular season, but regular seasons are known for lulling teams into false senses of security. They needed him back, and now they got him.
There's still some work to be done, and some question about whether Redick is better suited to starting or coming off the bench. But for now, he's just worried about finding his rhythm, particularly on the defensive end after experiencing some lapses in his first game back against the Dallas Mavericks, per Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch:
Defensively, my brain wasn't reacting well. I did some boneheaded things of just not being in the right spot or not being in the right spot soon enough. Over the course of a game, those three or four plays add up. Those were the plays that kind of annoyed me.
That's a refreshing attitude coming from a born scorer, a sign that even L.A.'s complementary pieces have their priorities in the right place.
The next questions are Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger. The Clippers will be fine at the 2-guard spot. (Crawford is just experiencing some soreness in an Achilles.) The question is how they'll fair at the 3, where Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley currently rank as the best solutions.
Granger has mixed six games, including Wednesday night's contest against OKC. The Clippers will need his length and shooting ability. Even if he doesn't start, he could be in store for solid rotation minutes in the postseason.
Though there's no timetable for his return, and there's also been no indication he'll be out for any portion of the playoffs. Regarding Crawford and Granger both, Rivers recently said, "I just don’t see them getting healthy enough to play right now," according to Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner.
That doesn't sound like a worried coach. And the fact that he's only ruling them out "right now" suggests the team is just taking an abundance of caution. Come playoff time, they should be just fine.
The Ability to Outscore...Anyone
The Clippers play with speed and poise, and they do so as well as anyone. That's how you wind up leading the league in scoring. It has more to do with a system hitting its stride than it does any single piece of talent, talented as several of those pieces may be.
Measuring these Clippers against last season's crew, it's that offensive flow that's made the difference. Last season LAC averaged just 101.1 points per contest compared to this season's 107.8. That's a steep increase, especially for a team that's battled several key injuries.
You can't single out any one factor that's responsible for the improvement. It's one of those synergy things you learn all about in human resource classes.
It helps that Chris Paul and Co. are really pushing the pace this season, turning defense into offense and keeping their composure in the process. The Clippers certainly aren't the only team that likes to run, but they do so without forcing anything, and that's rare. They're tied for the seventh-best mark in the league when it comes to turning the ball over.
Some of that can be attributed to Chris Paul's league-best assist-to-turnover ratio, but it also has to do with the team's collective decision-making. They take risks, but they take smart risks. It would be easy to get carried away by speed and athleticism, but that hasn't been the case.
General manager Neil Olshey also did a nice job surrounding Paul and Griffin with shooters who could space the floor. The most obvious example was acquiring Redick and Jared Dudley last summer, but grabbing Willie Green back in 2012 was the first step in the right direction. Once Granger gets an earnest opportunity to get healthy and gel with the team, L.A. will be in that much better shape.
The shooters aren't just valuable for their shots. They force other teams to think twice before clogging the paint and/or trying to double-team Griffin. Now there's a cost to doing so.
Redick, Crawford and Co. are all too happy to make them pay.
Of course there's one very distinctive thing separating these Clippers from past versions. Doc Rivers was born to coach in the postseason. Vinny Del Negro did a fine job keeping this team competitive, ensuring that the postseason was well within reach. But he wasn't cut out for the next level.
That's where Rivers comes in, why the Clippers tapped him to coach the team in the first place. He's won a title. He knows how to win when the games slow down. He understands that the playoffs are a different season altogether. He has a system and gets guys to believe in it.
Crawford explained the dynamic aptly, per SBNation's Paul Flannery:
He gets everybody to buy in. Everybody out there has a role and it's important. Even if you're not the guy catching and shooting or making the pass, we're all tied together. He gets everybody to believe in that and nobody's above the team. I really appreciate that. He coaches the top players like he does the bottom players and vice versa. He has no problem getting on anybody, because it's all about the Clippers winning and we've bought into that.
He certainly had no problem "getting on" Glen "Big Baby" Davis who, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Aresh Markazi, "was sent back to the team's locker room...for disciplinary issues" during a game back in March.
That kind of Alpha Dog control over the locker room is exactly what Del Negro lacked. This used to be Chris Paul's team. Now it's Rivers', and there's no question about it.
Nor should there be. As Crawford points out, there's now a very real sense that no one's above the team. That's the kind of ethos you need when the playoffs come around, when there's no room for egos and drama.
Those are the things that might have sidetracked this team once upon a time.
Not anymore. These Clippers are all business. All about winning.
And that's exactly what they're about to do.