LOS ANGELES — If you took last spring's six-game playoff loss to the Portland Trail Blazers and stretched it out over approximately 30 games, it would look a lot like the Los Angeles Clippers' 2016-17 season so far.
The hot start: The Clippers jumped out in that series with a pair of 20-point blowouts and began the current NBA campaign a league-best 14-2.
The road slowdown: L.A. lost Games 3 and 4 in Portland and dropped five of seven between late November and early December, including three in a row away from home.
"That's the sucky part of the game," Jamal Crawford recently said. "I think when we're all kids, we just want to go out there and play. You don't even think about injuries. But the reality of it is, it happens and we just have to, everybody has to, step up until these guys get back."
Last year's Clippers succumbed to the Blazers in six games, but got more than a glimpse of what their supporting cast could do when called upon. Austin Rivers battled through a busted eye. Jamal Crawford dropped 32 points off the bench in Game 6. That pair—along with Redick, DeAndre Jordan and the since-departed Jeff Green—kept L.A. within striking distance over the final two tilts.
Today's Clippers will have more than two-plus games to see what their newfound depth can do.
"Honestly, I don't think there's ever anything bad," head coach Doc Rivers said. "I think there's always something good in this. We'll find something out. I don't know what it is. But I always think you find a diamond in any of this stuff when this stuff happens."
So far, the results have been mixed. L.A. beat up on the Denver Nuggets during Griffin's first game out after knee surgery. It also held on to defeat the San Antonio Spurs following Paul's hamstring strain. However, the Clippers went on to drop dates at Staples Center to the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
Paul looked like he might've played against the Lakers on Christmas Day, but got yanked out of the starting lineup once it became clear he wasn't at full strength.
"Right now, feeling good is just not good enough," Rivers said. "If it was the playoffs, clearly that's good enough. But game 30-whatever, I feel good is not a good enough response. We've got to feel 100 percent."
The All-Star point guard returned in time for the Clippers' trip to New Orleans, but couldn't quite stave off a 102-98 loss to the Pelicans. That ran L.A.'s losing streak to four in a row and its total losses to sub-.500 teams to nine on the season.
"I'm thinking big picture," Paul said. "At the end of the day, we want to be healthy at the right time."
The Clippers have the luxury of pulling back from the day to day. At 22-12, they're well-positioned to snag a postseason spot for a team-record sixth straight year.
"We'll be fine," Austin Rivers insisted. "We still will be a top-four seed in the playoffs. We're still going to be one of the best teams in the West."
The younger Rivers is but one of the reasons the Clippers are sanguine about this stretch without their stars. Between Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, L.A. has three guards with starting experience who can attack off the dribble, create opportunities for their teammates and generate offense out of thin air.
Then again, even if that trio could go full Voltron, it would have a hard time matching Paul's production and efficiency at the point.
"No disrespect to anyone on their roster, but nobody can do what Chris Paul does," Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "He's arguably the best point guard in the world."
Felton fought through a 101-degree fever against the Lakers and was still "sick as a dog", per Doc Rivers, against the Nuggets the next night. Austin and Crawford have had to strike balances between scoring and playmaking that, under normal circumstances, would tilt one way over the other.
"Our heart's in the right place," Crawford said. "We're just trying to get guys shots. We're both naturally attackers. We're both naturally scorers. But we're very cognizant of trying to get our guys shots."
In the three games following Paul's injury, the Clippers turned the ball over 15.3 times per contest. That's well above their season average of 12.7 to that point, per NBA.com, and the 11 they logged with Paul back at the point in New Orleans.
The Clippers' remaining frontcourt players have had to adapt, as well. Luc Mbah a Moute and Wesley Johnson had played just nine minutes together all season before logging 19 minutes as L.A.'s starting pair against Denver, per NBA.com. That pair checked in as a minus-three for that game, per NBA.com, with the two missing weakside rotations behind Jordan and giving up offensive rebounds as a result.
Marreese Speights, who's starred largely as Jordan's backup at center, could see more time next to the Clippers' starter at the 4 while Griffin recovers.
"It gives defined roles for Mo," Doc Rivers said. "Mo never has to roll when he's with that group. He's out there just kind of hanging out behind the three[-point line] and waiting for someone to make a mistake."
Speights, for his part, seemed to enjoy that opportunity after spending seven minutes alongside Jordan against San Antonio, per NBA.com.
"That was fun playing next to DJ," he said. "Coach gave me the opportunity to do that. He's been doing that through the year a little bit but not really like tonight. It was a good experience, and hopefully it can help down the road, even when Blake comes back."
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for all of the Clippers' reserves has been the uptick in playing time. Some who were accustomed to jolting the team in 15-20 minutes off the bench (i.e. Crawford, Rivers, Felton, Speights, Johnson) have been tasked with surviving for 40 minutes or more. Others who spent most of the season in sweats (i.e. Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Alan Anderson) have had to dust off the built-up rust.
Even Doc Rivers has had to acclimate. When he has a full rotation, he can focus on his own team rather than worry so much about the opponent from night to night. He doesn't have that luxury, though, when three of his top four guys are cheering in street clothes.
"You just got to try to form a game plan and turn it into an individual game, not like a season plan," Doc Rivers explained. "When you have injuries like this, you turn the team into focusing on how to get through this game and then you focus on the next game when that happens and see who you have on the floor."
With all those changes coming amid a jam-packed schedule, there were (and still are) bound to be some growing pains. Fortunately for the Clippers, these challenges come in December and January, when they can try different combinations and test their collective mettle in high-leverage situations absent the do-or-die consequences of the postseason.
"We have to go through the everyday process," Crawford said. "I think we know that April, May, we won't even think about these games, but going through it is tough. For us, we just want to get a win."
Hope is on the horizon, beyond the next-game mentality: The schedule will lighten, with zero back-to-backs on tap for January. Paul is back and Redick should return soon from mild hamstring troubles. Griffin figures to be in uniform by February, and L.A. has had plenty of practice staying afloat without him.
In the meantime, the Clippers have little choice but to rediscover the secret to their early-season success: That they can't dominate on individual talent alone, that they're at their best when they play team basketball.
"It's hard enough when it's Blake because no one guy can replace him," Crawford said. "With C.P., of course no one guy can replace him. You lose J.J., it's like, 'Oh man, we have to do this collectively.' It has to be on both sides of the ball. We're going to make mistakes. It's part of life. It's part of the game. But we have to all be able to cover for each other."
So while the Clippers of yesteryear were all but doomed when their team crumbled in April, the Clippers of today have the luxury of waiting for their stars to heal while evaluating their supporting cast—and maybe steal a few wins while they're at it.
"Whatever hand you have, you play it and you try to win with it," Doc Rivers said. "Some nights you have to bluff to win. But you just play your hand and you do your best, and I think most times, it works out OK for you."
Clippers Insider's Notebook
Tables Turn on DJ
DeAndre Jordan has a history of shining when his co-stars go down.
Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, he averaged well over 14 points and 15 rebounds per game when Griffin wasn't available. When Paul missed 18 games with a sprained shoulder in 2014, Jordan averaged 11.2 points on 65.5 percent shooting with 15.0 rebounds and 3.6 combined blocks and steals.
So far, Jordan has struggled this season as the last man standing among L.A.'s Big Three. In three games without his two co-stars, his scoring and shooting numbers dropped noticeably, his turnovers skyrocketed and his activity on the defensive end waned.
|DeAndre Jordan, Before and After Clippers Injuries|
On the whole, the Clippers were three points worse with him on the floor against Dallas, 14 points worse opposite the Lakers and 11 points worse vs. Denver. The latter two were team lows.
Has Jordan's energy fallen off? Does he just miss the guys with whom he's shared a starting five since 2011? Did those struggles have anything to do with the opponents? In each of those contests, Jordan, who normally hangs around the hoop, got torched by bigs who can step out and shoot.
|DeAndre Jordan's Play vs. Centers Since Clippers Injuries|
|Opponent||Points||FG% Allowed||DJ's +/-|
Jordan avoided questioning after the Clippers' losses to the Lakers and Nuggets. Doc Rivers, though, doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over the perceived slippage.
"I'm not concerned by it. I'm really not," he said. "I want him to get more rebounds and do all the energy things. He'll find his way. He's just got to roll more, keep rolling and we'll keep trying to find him."
Jordan largely delivered on Rivers' faith in him against the Pelicans. The native Houstonian came through with 13 points, 25 rebounds and two blocks in 39 minutes, though the Clippers were outscored in the paint (42-38) during a four-point defeat.
Legends Face Off
Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki have had their fair share of epic showdowns since being drafted with back-to-back picks in 1998. Last week's 90-88 Mavericks win over the Clippers at Staples Center wasn't one of them.
Pierce finished with three points in fewer than 11 minutes. Nowitzki racked up 17 points in just under 15 minutes, but didn't play during the second half.
Still, that they shared a court, let alone started opposite one another, was cause for some reflection. Those two came into the game with nearly 56,000 combined points—the most of any pair since...well, last month, when Nowitzki, the No. 6 scorer in NBA history, took part in Dallas' 38-point blowout at the hands of LeBron James, No. 8 all time, and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Depending on health and rotations, that could go down as the last time Pierce and Nowitzki go toe-to-toe. The Clippers and Mavericks will see each other twice more—in Dallas on March 23, in L.A. on April 5—but Nowitzki has battled discomfort in his Achilles and Pierce, who's set to retire after this season, has rarely played when his team has been at full strength.
Rivers wasn't particularly sentimental about the 35th meeting between those two legends. He anticipates some emotional moments when Pierce makes his final trip to Boston on Feb. 5. As for a star opponent like Nowitzki, "I'm happy when they all leave, personally," Rivers said.
Doc Rivers has rarely been one to play rookies. Don't expect that to change.
The day after Christmas, the Clippers assigned Diamond Stone, a second-round pick out of Maryland, to the D-League's Salt Lake City Stars. The 6'11" center had logged just 16 minutes across four appearances this season, despite L.A.'s recent rash of injuries.
"We figured we have enough bigs, and he's not playing and I want him to play," Rivers explained. "I just think it's important for him to play."
Meanwhile, Brice Johnson, the Clippers' other rookie, has yet to suit up during the regular season. The North Carolina product has been nursing a herniated disc in his lower back since the preseason. Johnson, the No. 25 pick in 2016, was spotted working out on the court before the Clippers' game on Christmas Day. That doesn't mean, though, that he'll be in uniform anytime soon—not while he's yet to go through contact in practice.
"I've never seen him in workout clothes," Rivers said. "I think I'll tell you when he's getting close, because he's obviously not close yet."
All stats are via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes obtained firsthand.