LOS ANGELES — Last season after 32 games, the Clippers were 21-11.
This season after 32 games, the Clippers are 21-11.
But this season doesn’t look or feel the same.
“I don’t think we’ve played as well,” Blake Griffin said after a hard-fought 101-97 win against a scrappy Utah team Monday night. “I mean maybe to this point, it is kind of hard to remember exactly how we were playing, but we hit a stretch last year, late in January early in February, when (Chris Paul) came back where we really hit our stride. That’s what we have to find again, we have to find our stretch.”
That stretch of play at the start of 2014 meant the Clippers entered this season talked about as potential title contenders. However, in a loaded Western Conference the Clippers flaws — defense and depth — have the team looking so far like it might not get out of the first round.
To a man the Clippers own up to their spotty performance so far, they know they are not playing at the level of the other top teams in the West right now. But they also are taking a big picture view that there are 50 games left in the season, they have just gone through a crowded and tough stretch of the schedule, and that they can get back to the team they were. They believe they can still build the needed good habits.
If they are going to do that, they are going to have to defend more consistently.
In last five games entering Monday night the Clippers had surrendered to opponents 6.2 points per 100 possessions more than their season average (which was already 18th in the NBA) and opponents had an eFG% of 56.2 percent. The Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games and their defense is 26th in the league in that stretch.
“We’ve shown we can be very good defensively, we just pick and choose to do that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We played Golden State the other night (Christmas) and our defense looked as good as anybody in the league…. I think we’re going to be a really good defensive team at the end of the day.”
But they are not now and the Utah game Monday night was an example of why. After a rough 18-point first quarter the Jazz scored at a 120.8 points per 100 possessions offensive rating in the second and third quarters (a number that is phenomenally high). The Jazz were led by 15 points from Gordon Hayward in those middle 24 minutes and their guards were getting into the paint and breaking down the defense.
But then come the fourth — the game was tied 77-77 entering the frame — the Clippers became focused and the Jazz scored at an 83.9 points per 100 pace in those final 12 minutes. The Clippers got the win.
“Just a commitment, effort,” Clippers starting three Matt Barnes said of what is needed to change team’s inconsistency on defense. “Not to make any excuses but we’ve been on a hell of a schedule lately, playing every other day for like a month.”
While there are no excuses in the NBA, the Clippers have a pretty good one with their schedule and practice concerns — they are just coming through a loaded stretch of the schedule with a lot of games. Rivers, who already practices less than pretty much any other coach in the league, decided to keep his players fresh by not practicing on off days.
The Clippers last real “lace up, get after it” practice was Dec. 5, according to Blake Griffin. That’s going on nearly a month. While there are fewer practices in the NBA than many fans realize (due to travel schedules and the volume of games) that is a long time.
“When you don’t practice there’s slippage,” Rivers said. “Offensively we’re catching the ball in the wrong spots, one foot off. Defensively we just need to be reminded of what we should do. We take pride in a lot of things — making them make the second pass, defending the three-point line — and we’re slipping on a lot of those areas. I think we’ll have the time to fix those because it’s nothing new.”
The other big area of slippage is transition defense, that’s the area which let the Jazz hang around on Monday night. The Clippers defense in the paint with DeAndre Jordan has been pretty good (he had four blocks vs. Utah) but on the perimeter the Clippers are virtually matadors waiving their cape as the guy with the ball slashes into the lane and breaks the defense down.
The other issue has been the lackluster bench play — Monday night Rivers played Griffin the entire fourth quarter, including with the second unit, to give them another scoring option. That came after the bench couldn’t hold the lead they had been given in the first half.
In a brutally tight Western Conference, these inconsistencies and concerns about defense and depth could have the Clippers sixth or seventh in a power ranking of the conference (in PBT’s latest power rankings they are sixth in the West).
Both Rivers and the locker room embraces big picture — they think they have plenty of time to fix this. To get back to the team they were last season.
And they do — there are 50 games left before the playoffs start, more than three months of basketball.
But those other teams in the West are improving too, they are making moves to give them an edge (the Rockets have been the most aggressive). There is time to make personnel moves to add depth, although the Clippers are not far below a hard cap (which kicked in when they gave Spencer Hawes the mid-level exception last summer) so they don’t have much money to offer the few players out there.
Every team goes through down stretches over the course of 82 games. Maybe the Clippers are getting theirs out of the way early, maybe the schedule and lack of practices to fine tune things are the issue. Maybe they can find their stride again.
But right now, they do not look like the same team from last year.