LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers want to be an elite team and they know that in order to be an elite team, they have to be an elite defensive team first.
It’s a message Doc Rivers has driven home during every practice, meeting and game since the start of training camp.
Of course, wanting it and talking about it are completely different than actually doing it and more importantly doing it on a consistent basis.
The Clippers have shown flashes this season of being a solid defensive team but flashes will only win you games here or there against lesser teams during the regular season. That’s not going to get it done against elite teams when the playoffs roll around.
Against the Denver Nuggets on Monday, the Clippers scored 115 points but lost because they gave up 116 points. While all the focus was on Randy Foye’s desperation 3-pointer to win the game, the reason they lost was because they were dominated on the boards, 52-to-37, and in second chance points, 24-to-8.
“We’re just not consistent enough,” Rivers said. “Blame whatever you want, but we were up against a very good defensive team. Fortunately, we were good enough offensively to try and win the game but later that’s not going to work. You’re not going to roll it out and be able to outscore everybody. You’re going to have to get stops, you’re going to have to get stops in a row and it has to be consistent. For us to be an elite team, we have to do that. We can be a good team the way we are playing, but if you’re going to be elite, you’re going to have to have something of a standard defensively. We’re working on it.”
That standard is currently a work in progress, which is totally understandable considering the Clippers still have four games left before the All-Star break and still have the second half of the season to work on shoring up their defense. While the Clippers have been knocked for their lack of size and depth in the frontcourt, Rivers scoffs when he hears the Clippers can’t win a championship because of those shortcomings.
He points to the Miami Heat, who have won back-to-back titles and have gone to three straight Finals without much size and depth in the frontcourt. The one thing they have done well, however, over the last three seasons is play solid defense. The Clippers have certainly done that during stretches this season but over the last seven games, they are giving up 107.5 points per 100 possessions, one of the worst averages in the league. As good as the Clippers are offensively, they are not going to be able to win many games against elite teams giving up that many points.
The Clippers have an opportunity before the break to face the Heat on Wednesday night and the Portland Trail Blazers one week later at Staples Center. While defense has been the team’s Achilles heel through the first half of the season, defeating the league’s elite has also been an issue.
So far this season, the Clippers are 2-6 against the top five teams in the league with their two victories against Oklahoma City and San Antonio coming at home. The Clippers are also just 14-14 on the road this season. While they have played more road games than any team in the league through 51 games and also suffered losses to Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Portland on the second night of road back-to-backs, elite teams find a way to win some of those games.
And the Clippers can take a step toward becoming an elite team with wins over Miami and Portland over the next week. The Clippers, who are 20-3 at home this season, can also make a move in the standings with their next five games being at Staples Center. The Clippers are just a game and half behind Portland for the No. 3 seed and two and half games behind San Antonio for the No. 2 seed and could easily become a top five team instead of trying to beat one by the All-Star break.
Before they can do that, the Clippers know they have to play defense, which has been easier said than done for them since the season began.