SALT LAKE CITY -- Austin Rivers’ first game with the Los Angeles Clippers took place before his first practice or his first shootaround with the team. He was thrust onto the court two weeks ago, literally hours after taking a physical to complete a three-team trade that sent him to Los Angeles.
It was a forgettable game that saw him go 0-for-4 from the field with a turnover. Since then, Rivers has improved and gotten more comfortable with each game, and on Monday in the Clippers’ 94-89 win over the Utah Jazz, he had 12 points, accounting for all of the Clippers' scoring off the bench.
"He’s just getting comfortable and trying to figure out his spots,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re trying to get him to [be more aggressive]. He’s a guard, so he’s trying to facilitate, and we need his aggression. It was funny -- C.P. [Chris Paul] grabbed him and said, 'You can get to the basket, we need you to attack.' He listened to him, which was good.”
Austin Rivers needed to be more aggressive Monday with J.J. Redick being a late scratch due to back spasms and Jamal Crawford being thrust into the starting lineup. But his biggest contributions in the Clippers' sixth straight win of the season might have come because of his aggressive defense not his aggressive offense.
“He gives us speed, but more importantly tonight, and it was the first thing Lawrence [Frank] said, C.P. and Austin on the ball defensively were fantastic,” Doc Rivers said. “When they can guard the ball like that, it puts a lot of pressure on that team’s offense. I thought they were both sensational.”
Through the first half of the season Doc Rivers and many players on the team talked about how much they missed Darren Collison, who was Paul’s backup last season but signed a three-year, $16 million deal to be the starting point guard for the Sacramento Kings. The Clippers couldn’t afford to match the deal or playing time and settled on signing Jordan Farmar to a two-year, $4.2 million deal.
It was a signing that seemed good at the time but never quite worked. Farmar was unhappy with his role on the team, and the coaching staff wasn’t happy with Farmar’s play. In addition to trading Reggie Bullock and Chris Douglas-Roberts for Austin Rivers, the Clippers also waived Farmar. While Austin isn’t quite Collison, he does give the Clippers a guard who can play alongside Paul and pick up some of the slack defensively, which Farmar could never do.
“He doesn’t do the pick-up [like Collison], but where he’s better is once the ball crosses half court,” Doc Rivers said. “He’s 6-5, so he gives us length and speed and that’s been good for us.”
Austin Rivers shook his head when he thought back to his first game with the Clippers, when he didn’t know the plays let alone his teammates, and thought about how far he’s come in two weeks.
“It just keeps getting better and better,” Austin said. “I feel like now I’m there. Now you just go out and play. I felt like that even after the last game. I was 2-for-4, but I was efficient and consistent, and after that game my teammates were saying, ‘We need you to be more aggressive. You’re a scorer.’ You just go out there and shoot it, and that’s the way I’ve been my whole life.”
Paul has constantly talked to Austin about being more aggressive and believes his presence has helped the second unit play more uptempo than they did before.
“He’s still finding his way but we keep telling him to be aggressive,” Paul said. “The biggest thing he did tonight was defensively he was all over the place. His energy is something that we need, and it’s great because it’s a change of pace. I’m nowhere near as fast as Austin, so it’s cool when I come out, it changes the game up.”
There was some question as to how the coach’s son would fit into the Clippers’ locker room, but he has been embraced by his teammates since he came to the team. Before the game, Paul was teasing Austin for eating chicken fingers and fries, and after the game, Blake Griffin was teasing him for his upbringing. If anything, Clippers players say the addition of Austin and Dahntay Jones has improved team chemistry
“I just love his aggression on offense and his willingness to attack the basket,” Griffin said of Austin. “And defensively, on the ball, he’s a dog on the ball. It’s tough to get around him. He’s guarding multiple guys very, very closely and very tough. He’s been huge for us, and you got to think, he still doesn’t really have his rhythm with our team. Those are all extremely promising things, and I expect more out of him. He’s doing a great job, but he can do more, he’s capable of doing more -- but once he gets that rhythm.”
It’s a rhythm Austin thinks he’ll get soon enough playing in an offense that allows him to do what he’s comfortable, which hasn’t always been the case since he was drafted by New Orleans with the 10th pick in the 2012 draft with the lottery pick the Clippers traded to acquire Paul.
“I haven’t been used to playing this free,” Austin said. “I haven’t been this free since I was playing at Duke or in high school, and people know what I did there. It’s one of those things, when I got here, it felt nice. I’m back and just playing basketball.”
Austin’s next game will be Friday at New Orleans against the team that not only drafted him, but also refused to pick up his fourth year option before the season and traded him by midseason. He smiled when asked what it will be like to play his old team.
“Whenever anybody plays their old team, there’s obviously something there,” Austin said. “I parted ways in a positive way. This is just a better situation. I felt like there, I wasn’t able to play like me. I felt I could be better, and here I can play free. I’m in a good position to be in now.”