LOS ANGELES -- It’s probably too early in the season for a team to have a turning point.
Epiphanies and eureka moments for teams usually occur sometime after the midseason when teams have played more than eight games.
But something has happened to the Clippers over the past two games defensively, which is to say they’ve actually decided to play some this season.
Simply glancing at the final score of Monday’s 109-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, it would be easy to think that nothing has changed. The Clippers are still a team that scores a lot of points but also gives up a lot of points.
But that’s not entirely the case if you look more closely at the box score.
“They scored 107 points but they shot 41 percent,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Defensively, that’s really good.”
Rivers knows the Clippers are going to give up more points than he’s accustomed to because they’re going to score more and at a quicker pace than he’s accustomed to as well.
“I have to get comfortable with the fact that we’re scoring a lot of points and we’re scoring them quickly, so that means the other team will have far more opportunities to score,” Rivers said. “They may more score points, but the percentage is what I’m not happy with. It’s just a process that you got to go through. Some get it quick. Some don’t. This team is in between. What I do like is when we do it, you can see it. The more we do it, the more, hopefully, they’ll see it. That’s the only way we’re going to win at the end of the day.”
The Timberwolves scored 47 points on the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night in their 113-90 win but didn’t hit 47 points until about two minutes left in the second quarter on Monday. Not only did the Clippers hold Minnesota to 41.7 percent shooting, they also kept them to 37.9 percent from behind the arc. It was a solid defensive effort that was an extension of the way the Clippers played in the second half against Houston, when they gave up just 39 second-half points and held the Rockets to 44.9 percent shooting and 26.9 percent from 3-point range.
Against Houston, they held the Rockets to nine points in the last four minutes, and against Minnesota they were able to withstand three possible game-tying shots from three different players to hold on for the win.
“There’s no turning point,” Rivers said. “If we play like that every night defensively, we may not lose again. Our defense kind of woke up for a second [against Houston]. It would be great if that was the start of it. It just takes time. It was great. Our weak-side defense for the first time this year was spectacular. On film it looked better; everybody was down in their stance. Usually when I’m watching it, we have three guys standing straight up and two guys down. Guys were pointing early to the plays before they were happening. It just takes a great amount of intensity and a great amount of focus. I’m hoping it builds, but I don’t think we have it yet.”
The Clippers might not have it yet, but they’re closer than they’ve ever been this season and certainly are better than they were through the first five games, when they were giving up a league-high 112.5 points per game.
“We’re almost there,” said Chris Paul, who became the first NBA player in more than 20 years to start a season with a double-double in the first eight games of the season. “A lot of times tonight we were in the right spots. I think we need to get better rebounding collectively. We cannot just rely on DeAndre [Jordan] and Blake [Griffin]. We are playing at lot faster this year, which gives them an opportunity to score a little more.”
Rivers is fine with teams scoring a little more as long as the Clippers win. But he cringed when he saw the Clippers allowed Minnesota to attempt 96 shots and allowed 107 points in the process. That cannot be a sustainable trend no matter how well the Clippers are defending those shots.
“Not that many, please -- my gosh, I can’t live this way,” Rivers said. “Percentage is important. It tells you you’re doing a lot of right things, and that’s two games in a row now, so it’s starting to trend our way.”
One of the unsung heroes of the Clippers’ defense has been Griffin, who has been given the task of guarding LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kevin Love the past three games. He has held his own in his each games and is beginning to establish himself as a solid defender.
“I’m so happy for him,” Rivers said. “He’s finding out that you can play defense and offense and still have energy. You can see he’s starting to enjoy defending. He’s enjoying getting stops. He was more excited on the transition play when everybody got back than he was on his layup. That’s good team-building. Blake being more open on the court triggers so many good things. It allows him and [Jordan] to be so good together and allows Chris to get in the paint.”
Griffin smiled when he heard about Rivers’ praise. He knows the stereotypes and generalizations about his game and has been working to become a more well-rounded player, which includes becoming a solid defender in addition to working on his free throws and midrange game.
“Every year I try to take another step, and this year is the same,” Griffin said. “I focus really on 'help defense,' which is huge in our system of trust and ensuring that someone always had your back. I take a lot of pride in defense, despite what it might look like.”
Developing a consistently good defense built on trust doesn’t happen overnight and isn’t set after just two games, but for the first time this season, the Clippers are starting to play like the defensive team they hoped they would be coming out of training camp.
“It’s hard,” Rivers said. “It’s easy to play individual defense. It’s hard to play team defense because it requires trust and you have to build it.”