Paul's return ignites defense, second unit

LOS ANGELES -- It will be easy to get lost in the franchise-best 45-point margin of victory, Chris Paul's return and the dozens of highlight-reel plays that littered the Los Angeles Clippers' 123-78 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night.

But that wasn't what impressed 76ers coach Brett Brown and Clippers coach Doc Rivers when they spoke at midcourt afterward.

"What Brett said after the game was right," Rivers said. "He said, 'As much as you scored, it was your defense that changed the game.' That's what I kept saying with Chris. People are talking about offense, but we miss Chris defensively. He’s one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the league, defensively. Not having that hurts us and having that, you could see what happens."

At one point, the 76ers were 1-for-25 on pick-and-rolls, according to Rivers, and that was largely because of Paul.

"When a guard can get over the pick and the bigs can get back and then you can defend the line, everything falls into place," Rivers said. "I thought that's where it showed for me. The offense was a byproduct of the defense."

Blowouts will happen during the course of a season. They're usually more of an aberration than an indicator of things to come. For example, it's safe to say the Clippers won't be taking many 31-point leads in the first quarter or 56-point leads in the third quarter this season.

What will last long after the blowout win and play a part in the Clippers' success or failure in the postseason is how they can build upon the defensive intensity they showed Sunday, and also embrace the rotations that will now come into shape with L.A. returning to full health.

Not only did Paul return, but J.J. Redick, who has missed 24 games this season because of various injuries, is expected back in the lineup Wednesday. It will be the first time the Clippers have their full collection of players available to them since the beginning of the season. It will allow players like Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford, who started when Paul and Redick were out, to return to a second team that has struggled without them.

"When you have Jamal and D.C. in that second unit that turns into a really nice unit," Rivers said. "Unfortunately we haven't had that unit or the first unit much this year, but it's getting closer and that's good. ... That'll be nice to see that second unit be an energy group again for us."

Rivers even hinted at returning Matt Barnes, who has started the past 12 games, to the second unit because he likes Jared Dudley, who started the first 42 games of the season, to play along with Paul and Redick, and likes Barnes' energy off the bench.

"Who wouldn't want to play more minutes with C.P.?" Dudley said. "But just having him back and having D.C. as that backup point guard, we have a better flow. He has more of a flow for the second unit and he helps us out. For the long run having D.C. in that second unit will make us better. ... We have depth now and more firepower off the bench. It's something we planned on during the summer time."

The one area of the team Rivers has been harping on since the summer is defense. It has come and gone during stretches, but the Clippers realize they will only go as far as their defense takes them, and that was evident even while Paul was sidelined for the previous 18 games. The Clippers went 12-6 during that stretch and while they were averaging 108.9 points, second best in the league, their point differential (plus-6.1) was third best behind Indiana and Oklahoma City.

"It was just tempo," Paul said. "Even sitting on the sidelines I could see that if we push it and get stops things will happen. From looking at the game it looks like it was our offense, but it was more so our defense and that was one thing I paid attention to since I've been out, how good our defense has looked."

Paul singled out Rivers and assistant coaches Tyronn Lue and Brendan O'Connor after the game as the "heads of defense," and a big reason why the Clippers are a better defensive team this year.

"We're prepared going into every game so it's up to us to execute it," Paul said. "We were on a string tonight. When one guy gets beat, the other guy is there. It's not going to be perfect every night and some teams are still going to make shots, but as long as we try and do what we're supposed to, we're going to be OK."

The biggest takeaway from Paul's absence to his return Sunday is the Clippers have no problem scoring with or without him in the lineup, but their ability to stop opponents from scoring will ultimately dictate how far they end up going in the postseason.

"That's something we're trying to improve on," Collison said. "If we want to get far in the playoffs, we have to clean up our mistakes and habits now. Doc is always saying and always preaching, defense, defense, defense. We can't really rely on our offense, we've got to worry about our defense."