LOS ANGELES — Monday evening, Detroit Pistons forward Tobias Harris drove by Blake Griffin for a layup. After the ball fell through the net, Griffin grabbed it and spiked it, upset to be giving up a basket.
On the scoreboard, the Los Angeles Clippers saw their lead slip...to 32 points in the third quarter of what would be a 114-82 victory over a Detroit team that fell to 4-3.
"Taking that next step as a team, even when you’re up 30 or you’re up 20 or whatever it is, there shouldn’t be letup," Griffin said. "You can’t start playing a different way and practicing bad habits just because you’re up by a lot."
That commitment to consistency, that persistent attention to detail, has the Clippers off to a franchise- and conference-best 6-1 start on the strength of a defense that has smothered the opposition from the outset.
According to NBA.com, L.A. leads the league in defensive rating (90.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) and opponent field-goal percentage (40.3 percent). The team also ranks among the top five in turnovers forced per game (17.1) and points off turnovers (20.3).
"There’s really nothing that would tell you that this team should be anything other than a great defensive team," said Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, before watching his own squad shoot 36.6 percent from the field at the Staples Center.
The Clippers have had the personnel to excel on that end for years. They're anchored by a pair of All-Defensive performers in Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin, with his athleticism and understanding of court geometry, has become a multi-positional pest. Luc Mbah a Moute probably wouldn't be in the league, let alone starting on a title contender, if not for his perimeter defense. Even J.J. Redick has proven to be an effective cog within L.A.'s defensive machinery.
"You have to be a great team defender," head coach Doc Rivers said. "That’s just following rules, where you’re supposed to be and understanding where you’re supposed to be. If you’re not a great individual defender, you have to study the team defense and understand exactly where your body should be."
That opening group has been together since last season, with the core of it connecting back to the 2013-14 campaign. Together, the Clippers starting five has mastered the pick-and-roll principles that Rivers installed at the start of 2015-16. The team initially struggled with those changes but settled in over time and finished that run as the NBA's fifth-stingiest defense.
"Why didn’t we do this last year?" Paul posed to himself. "Part of it is attention to detail, tweaking a few things here and there and trust. It always helps, too, to know that if you help a guy, another guy is going to be there."
"I think it’s a continuation from last year," Redick said.
L.A.'s second unit has had few, if any, of the benefits that have made the starters so successful. Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Wesley Johnson are holdovers, but Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights are newcomers, and Johnson is spending more time at power forward this season. Among that group, only Johnson would typically qualify as an above-average individual defender.
And yet, according to NBA.com, that fivesome has held opponents to 87.5 points per 100 possessions.
Felton has been sturdy at the point, thanks to his thick strength. Speights, while not a shot-blocker, has protected the rim by drawing charges—an NBA-high six so far.
Even Crawford, rarely known for his defense, has exceeded expectations. During one first-quarter possession against the Pistons, he got down in a deep defensive stance against Stanley Johnson, waving his arms up and down like a bird getting off the ground, and picked off a pass that he then flung upcourt to the Clippers' Johnson for a layup.
"I think we’re locked in as a group, and we’re playing for each other," Crawford said.
That comes, in part, from a comfort among these Clippers with critiquing one another.
"Defensively, a couple of the new coaches with us, that’s the first thing they notice is, 'Man, you guys, if someone messes up on the rotations, they’re going to hear from everyone,'" Rivers said. "That’s a good thing. We need to keep doing that."
L.A. isn't just doing that in games, either. The Clippers have gotten on each other in practice, building good habits by calling out the bad ones.
"We get excited about defense," Griffin said. "Most of our emphasis coming from the players is on defense. We’re ready to get five stops in a row, six stops in a row. Whatever it is, it’s taking us doing the same thing. I think the onus has been on the players just having that mindset and taking pride in it."
In years past, the Clippers might not have needed to clamp down so early on. By and large, their offense has been among the league's best since Paul turned L.A. into Lob City in December 2011.
This season, their offense looked creaky coming out of the gate. Rivers' efforts to turn his team into a pass-happy bunch seemed to fall flat, flinging the Clippers back into their old, isolation-heavy habits—no more so than during an 85-83 home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But now, the shots have been falling and the defense is just as stingy.
"The old saying is, 'Your offense will fail you, but your defense can never let you down,'" Rivers said. "I think that’s how we’ve been playing."
The challenge for these Clippers is maintaining—and, perhaps, improving upon—their exceptional play, particularly at the defensive end. They'll play nine of their next 14 games on the road and won't have more than one day off between games until the first full week of December.
"We’re not going to practice that much," Griffin said. "When we do get in there, when we do have time to practice, when we are there for shootarounds, I think really locking in and taking ownership as players, like 'Hey, we’ve got to learn this' or 'Hey, we’ve got to get this down,' talking something out on our own, figuring out a set [and] how we want to guard it.
"Just little things like that, I think, go a long way. It helps also having a team that’s been together for a long time."
In past years, the Clippers' continuity has amounted mostly to a team that can score in bunches but never seems to maintain its composure when the lights are brightest and the pressure is at its most suffocating.
Perhaps hanging its collective hat on defense now will help this club get over the hump later.
"I think when you start off a season, you’re always wondering what a team’s identity is going to be," Paul said. "Once you get a few games under your belt, you sort of start to see that. I think now, our team is excited about our defense. We get excited about stopping teams and trying to keep them under a certain number or whatnot. That’s something I think can be contagious all season long."
Clippers Insider's Notebook
CP3 Sets Assist Record
With one innocuous pass to a curling Redick, Paul etched his name into Clippers history, as this video from the Clippers' official Twitter account shows:
Redick's floater registered as Paul's 3,499th assist as a Clipper, putting him ahead of Randy Smith as the franchise's all-time leader.
"It’s definitely cool, first of all, because Randy Smith is first in everything in the Clippers’ history books," he said after L.A.'s 99-88 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 4. "Any time your name will last after you is pretty cool."
Paul has a point about Smith. The former franchise fixture, who died in 2009, still owns 10 team records, including games played (715), points (12,735) and steals (1,072).
Smith spent seven of his Clippers seasons with the Buffalo Braves and an eighth after the team moved to San Diego, California. This is Paul's sixth season in Los Angeles. And if he keeps up his thieving ways, Paul could supplant Smith's mark for steals before season's end.
Jamal Makes His Mark
Paul wasn't the only Clipper to climb history's ladder during the team's two-game road trip. In L.A.'s 116-92 win over the San Antonio Spurs, Jamal Crawford hit a three from the wing to close the first half and move past former teammate Grant Hill for 88th on the NBA's all-time scoring list, via the Clippers' Facebook:
This season, he's moved up without forcing the issue offensively.
"He’s in a great place, probably the best place I’ve seen him since I’ve had him," Rivers said. "He’s been a facilitator a lot. He scores when he needs to score. He’s not pressing it."
Whatever liberties Crawford does or doesn't take with his shot, he should move into the top 70 of the league's scoring list—and, possibly, into the top 60—by season's end. Before then, he'll have his own bobblehead commemorating a third Sixth Man of the Year Award. The Clippers will be handing out these souvenirs when the Portland Trail Blazers come to town on Wednesday.
So far, Speights has been the shining star of Clippers reserves. He's averaged 10.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game while spacing the floor on offense, providing an added protective punch on defense and bringing another tint of levity to the locker room.
"Let’s just be honest: Marreese is very talented, and there’s no way he should be playing for the minimum," Rivers proclaimed.
How, then, did the Clippers manage to lure him to Southern California at a bargain-bin price?
"I think his weight was probably one of the reasons," Rivers said. "He’s decided to take it another level as far as his approach. He’s getting serious about the game, and we’re benefiting from it."
Through seven games, Speights owns the best net rating (plus-11.7 points per 100 possession) of any L.A. sub, per NBA.com. Not bad for a guy who used to be a thorn in the Clippers' side.
Doc Reflects on Ray
If not for Ray Allen, Doc Rivers probably wouldn't have a championship ring, let alone a pair of NBA Finals appearances on his resume. It was Allen's landing with the Boston Celtics in 2007 that started to turn the tide for that storied franchise and, with Kevin Garnett's arrival that same summer, eventually ended a 22-year title drought.
So when the league's most prolific sharpshooter announced his official retirement on the Players' Tribune, Rivers didn't hesitate to chime in.
"I think he actually would’ve played this year if someone had signed him," the coach said. "He’s in better shape than all of us. He really is. I really appreciate his professionalism. There’s very few guys that I’ve seen that took their craft, scientifically, so seriously as Ray. He dissected his game as much as any guy I’ve ever seen to the point where he knew where every shot was coming from."
Allen's understanding of his own sweet spots was the product of meticulous shooting routines. Rivers recalled Kevin Eastman, an assistant on his staff in Boston, counting more than 500 shots during Allen's pregame warm-ups on several occasions.
"It would take my whole season to take that many shots," Rivers quipped. "But that’s why he shot the ball the way he shot the ball."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats accurate as of games played on Nov. 7, 2016.