LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers has been here before. Sort of.
He has entered a season the coach of a team that, thanks to some bold off-season front office moves, looked like a contender. The difference is the core of the 2008 Celtics — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen — were all healthy and pushing each other in training camp.
“They came out of training camp running…” Rivers said of his Celtics. “We played Toronto in Rome in the first exhibition game, and Kevin [Garnett] was diving around on the floor, and I turned to [assistant coach Tom Thibodeau] and said, ‘We’re going to win it this year.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure of it.’
“But [these Clippers] didn’t have that chance this year. Kawhi [Leonard] didn’t play much in preseason or training camp, Paul [George] didn’t play at all. Then when Paul came back, Kawhi was out. But it was just one of those things.”
This Clippers’ season has been a study in long-term thinking. It has been about taking time with recovery from injuries (Paul George returning from off-season shoulder surgery, Kawhi Leonard‘s knee issues, Patrick Beverley‘s strained groin, and that is just the tip of the iceberg). It has been about rest to prevent more injuries. The Clippers target has been the playoffs, not the regular season.
It has been a contrast with the other team in Staples Center, a Lakers’ team led by LeBron James that has placed a higher value on the regular season. The Lakers focused on building good habits and chemistry and banking on that to pay off in May and, maybe, June.
The Clippers — finally healthy and whole, with Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson in the rotation — now have weeks to develop the chemistry they will need in the playoffs. The cohesiveness needed to take advantage of their deep and talented roster.
A locker room that has had tension, dissension, and lacked cohesion at points this season now needs to come together and pull the rope in the same direction.
“You can feel our guys know they have to get it. They know that…” Rivers said. “There’s a positive urgency about that, but there’s not a panic about that, which I love. They know they need it, they know they’re going to work.
“They know they have time, but they know they don’t have a lot of time.”
“If we serious about this, we got to show it and work towards it now,” Paul George said. “I think coach made a great comment about turning it on now and not thinking we can [flip the switch] late. There’s got to be some steps that we take if we’re serious about our journey down here.”
The healthy Clippers have been impressive — they are 16-4 when Leonard, George, and Beverley are all in the starting lineup. There have been flashes, like beating the Lakers on Christmas Day, when the Clippers looked every bit the title contender.
Those Clippers also still have a lot of steps to take, the on-court chemistry remains a work in progress.
I don't think I've ever seen Kawhi Leonard this mad this season. pic.twitter.com/wIiesS37Cf
— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) February 22, 2020
On that play from a week ago, sharpshooter Landry Shamet ran to the corner for a transition three, Leonard made a pass expecting him to cut to the basket for a layup. That’s just a lack of time playing together manifesting in a turnover.
“We got to get guys on the floor, we need minutes together,” Rivers said after his team easily handled Memphis on Monday night. “Even tonight, we played great, but then there were stretches I thought we got bogged down. You can see, we just don’t know the stuff yet.”
“We all know we got to get better, we got to get healthy, we got to be more consistent,” Leonard said. “You can’t panic, you have to stay even keel.”
The bright side for Rivers and the Clippers is the defense — it has been intimidating when healthy, holding their last two opponents below 100 points (granted, Memphis and Phoenix are both slightly below average offenses). There also was a change in plan of attack from Rivers: He put Leonard on star rookie Ja Morant from the opening tip Monday night. No easing the load on Leonard and letting someone else do the hard work early, Rivers wanted to set a tone. Leonard did exactly that. The Clippers raced out to a 35-9 lead in that game.
Rivers is still doing some experimenting. Against Phoenix he broke out some five-out, small-ball lineups with Morris at center, leaving starter Ivica Zubac and possible Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell on the bench (Harrell usually closes games for the Clippers at the five).
Rivers also is putting another ball-handler on the court with Lou Williams in the form of Jackson. For the past couple of seasons, the Williams and Harrell pick-and-roll off the bench has been the Clippers’ best offense (and what they counted on in crunch time). Now, the lineups are different and Williams could even see a reduction in minutes. Rivers added he thought having a second ball-handler on the court would be good for Williams.
Maybe. It just takes time to figure all that out, and the Clippers are running out of it. Longer shootarounds to go over sets and longer film sessions (things that have happened with the Clippers of late) can only go so far.
“We have to learn our own stuff, because we’ve had so much disruption this year. We’ve had 28 different starting lineups,” Rivers said. “It just hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go as far as the continuity part.”
The players, for all the bumps that come in a culture shift when superstars like Leonard and George are added to the mix, seem to get the time is now.
“It feels better having all of us on the floor,” Shamet said. “It felt good to have everybody full force, to see what that big picture looks like.”
The Clippers as an organization chose this path — it was always all about the playoffs. And, hopefully, a ring. The games in November and January took a back seat to the big picture. The Clippers focused on getting healthy and some rest, and now they will see if that bet pays off.
“We’ve been put in the place we’ve been put in, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fight it. What were we going to do, play PG hurt?” Rivers asked. “The injuries and all the things just kind of added up on us, it’s not what we expected. But we didn’t expect Pat (Beverley) to miss games, and Lou (Williams) to miss games, and PG to miss the games he did.
“But I told the players, ‘so what? It happens.’ The key is being ready, win as many games as we can, and be ready when it really counts. That’s all we can do. That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and we have to play that hand.
“We can play that hand and still win it.”