The regular season is rapidly winding down, which means that teams are making their final preparations for the playoffs. For some teams that means it’s time to rest key players. For other teams, it means shortening the rotation and adjusting to playing with just the guys that will play meaningful minutes in the postseason. For all playoff-bound teams, this is the last real opportunity to work out any kinks and address any areas of weakness that have lingered throughout the season.
The Los Angeles Clippers are currently 46-31, have just five regular season games remaining and still have a handful of issues that need to be addressed before the start of the postseason. At this point in the season, the Clippers’ biggest concern is their inability to play with a high sense of urgency consistently.
The team started the 2015-16 season with a bang. The team’s defense was firing on all cylinders and had many wondering whether the Clippers could sustain their dominance on defense over the entire season. The Clippers were playing so well it even seemed to catch the players by surprise.
“Why didn’t we do this last year?” Paul wondered rhetorically. “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.”
Clipper players were talking about the team’s effectiveness on defense as the team’s greatest source of strength. A team that a few years ago was dubbed “Lob City” was suddenly forging a new identity as an elite defensive squad.
“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.”
Unfortunately, injuries, among other issues, disrupted the team’s early season success. In late December, it was discovered that Griffin would undergo knee surgery to remove loose bodies. Then, in mid-January, Paul tore a ligament in his left hand that would require surgery. Griffin was nearing his return at this point, but these separate injuries created a roughly two-month stretch in which Los Angeles was playing without one of its star players.
While Paul and Griffin are now both healthy, the team has never come close to recapturing that defensive intensity and all-around level of play that had people openly wondering whether the Clippers could upset the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series. The hyper-aggressive perimeter defense, crisp switches and consistent communication that powered their defense has only returned in spurts and is non-existent for long stretches. Whether it is lingering injuries, fatigue, complacency, or something else, the Clippers are not able to maintain a high level of effort over 48 minutes of action like they could earlier this season.
“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.”
Griffin stated this in November of last year, after the Clippers pummeled the Detroit Pistons 114-82. November seems like a lifetime ago and the Clippers would be well-served to look back on the early part of the season and this quote to remind themselves of what made them so successful at the beginning of this campaign.
This is especially true in the aftermath of the Clippers’ stunning loss to the Sacramento Kings on March 26. The Clippers held an 18-point fourth quarter lead, but a combination of bad decisions, questionable rotations and uneven effort and execution led to an epic collapse for Los Angeles.
“We saw they started chirping with each other and we were able to see them collapse,” Buddy Hield said to the Sacramento Bee’s Jason Jones.
Tough losses such as this happen from time to time. It doesn’t mean the Clippers are suddenly unable to compete at a high level or close out games. But it does show what can happen when a team fails to lift its collective effort and trust each other to make the right rotations and defensive plays.
Fortunately, the Clippers put up a strong performance against the Washington Wizards on Sunday and managed to close a surprisingly resilient Phoenix Suns squad on Thursday. However, these recent wins haven’t solved the Clippers’ up-and-down level of focus, intensity and consistency.
“We have to play desperate,” DeAndre Jordan said recently. “I feel like that’s what a lot of other teams are doing who are even a higher seed than we are. Their spirits are different. We have to find that.”
Another ongoing issue for the Clippers is Doc Rivers’ odd rotations. Coach Rivers has relied heavily on making mass substitutions at certain points in the game rather than staggering his lineups to keep some star power on the court at all times. This is nothing new for the Clippers, but recently Coach Rivers has also been relying on players like Paul Pierce, who simply isn’t playing well enough to be in the rotation at this point, and has left struggling lineups in at crucial moments of games.
“I wanted to see if our bench could take us home, because I really did not want to put our [starters] back in at all,” Coach Rivers said after losing to Sacramento. “And at the end of the day, it may have cost us the game with that decision.”
To be fair, the regular season is the time to experiment and figure out what you can reasonably expect from certain players or lineups in situations like this one. However, with just five games remaining, playoff seeding still in flux and with a team that has yet to recapture the early-season intensity that made it elite, perhaps the time for experimenting is over.
The Clippers are not strangers to the pressure and intensity of the postseason. This is a veteran team that knows what it takes to win a seven-game series. But this is also a team that has collapsed in high-pressure situations, failed to live up to postseason expectations and is currently displaying some of the same bad habits that have caused problems in the past. There is no easy solution to what’s ailing the Clippers. However, with only five games over the next 12 days, they at least have time to evaluate their current situation and work towards some solutions prior to the postseason.
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