SAN ANTONIO -- As Mo Williams scarfed down chicken fingers after the Clippers' 120-108 win over the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center, he explained how the touch of the ball in his hands early in a game helps him shoot the ball late. There's an acclimation process for a shooter that enables him to hit 7-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc en route to a season-high 33 points, particularly in a half-court offense that favors improvisation.
“The most difficult thing to do in this game is to call things on the fly,” Williams said. “It was nothing that came from the sidelines. It was just basically, ‘I just hit a 3, okay, let's get you another 3. That's what we're going to do.’ It was kind of like an eye contact.”
In many respects, Williams is the Clippers' totem. There isn't so much a reason as a rhythm to his game. He doesn't offer the Clippers much on the defensive side of the ball, and his role on the team is more fuzzy than defined. But give him enough space on the offensive end of the floor and he'll occasionally win you a basketball game.
The victory was a milestone for the organization -- the Clippers' first in San Antonio since Jan. 31, 2002, when Michael Olowokandi went for 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots -- but like many others it was a triumph of anarchy over order. “Only two of the nine plays that ended in 3-pointers were set plays for us,” Williams said -- a fact Chris Paul independently confirmed on the other side of the locker room as the Clippers prepared to pack up and return home to Los Angeles after a 3-3 road trip.
Should the Clippers take comfort in their ability to manufacture points out of chaos? That apart from an occasional flare screen from Blake Griffin along the perimeter or a pick from Reggie Evans at the top of the floor, most of the combined 69 points from Williams and Paul on Friday were the product of bedlam?
“Identity” is one of those buzz words you hear repeatedly out of the mouths of NBA coaches and players, but you rarely hear it from Vinny Del Negro or any member of the Clippers' core. The Clippers battle, fight and work, but try to define who they are as a basketball team and you're at a loss for words.
That's not necessarily a problem, especially if you believe that a team's character and distinctiveness reveal themselves over time. There's a lot working in the Clippers' favor as they return home for a six-game homestand. They're currently ranked third in the Western Conference standings and have beaten each of the other seven teams who'd qualify for the playoffs if the postseason began today.
None of this has come without adversity. The Clippers lost their starting shooting guard and elder statesman for the season when Chauncey Billups went down on Feb. 6. DeAndre Jordan has regressed -- he racked up more personal fouls than points on the road trip -- and now rarely finds himself on the floor during crucial stretches. And the Clippers cant' seem to rely on small forward Caron Butler for consistent production. Despite all that, the Clippers are still able to come into an inhospitable arena and wax a Spurs team that has made a living over the years exposing their folly.
Yet the on-court product offers very little reassurance outside of Paul's unique ability to create miracles out of muck. The rhythm Williams celebrated after Friday's game wasn't born out of any system or overriding principle other than “let it fly.” As Del Negro said after the game, Williams and Paul were merely “knocking shots down from all over the place.” Credit Del Negro for accepting the Spurs' invitation by inserting a small-ball lineup that exposed San Antonio’s lack of quickness. But there's something perilous -- possibly even arrogant -- about approaching games with such tactical limits.
Then there's the defense, which has stubbornly ranked among the bottom 10 in the league for weeks. On Friday, the Clippers surrendered 44 points in the paint to San Antonio on 22-for-36 shooting. The team has nobody on the wing that can be charitably described as an above average on-ball defender. The Clippers' half-court defense gets stretched on nearly every pick-and-roll, and once those coverages get scrambled, they're helpless to defend the arc. If you're looking for an upward trajectory that suggests improvement on defense, you'd be hard-pressed to find it -- particularly with Jordan's inability to stay on the floor.
Maybe none of this matters. Maybe Williams is on to something when he describes an almost telepathic relationship between the Clippers' playmakers that allows them to create shots without so much as a play call from the sideline. Maybe Paul is that clever and Griffin that powerful. Maybe a conference populated by flawed teams in an abbreviated season can be won by a group that can beat any squad on any night with guerilla warfare -- whiteboard be damned.
Maybe that’s called an identity.