SAN ANTONIO -- Doc Rivers doesn't believe in litmus tests.
Not this early in the season and, to be honest, not at any point during the regular season.
“I said it all last year, you don’t measure yourself during the regular season,” Rivers said. “You don’t know what a team’s going through. You don’t know if they’re going through a tough stretch.
"They could have injuries or they could be in what we’re in [playing four games in five nights]. How can we judge when we are playing this many games?”
It’s an understandable stance to take fewer than 30 games into the season, and Rivers is probably right. After all, the Clippers won 17 games in a row two years ago and were bounced in the first round despite having home-court advantage. They've won back to back Pacific Division titles and have won at least 56 games the past two seasons and still haven’t been past the second round.
The Clippers have learned that a great regular season doesn't necessarily equate to a great postseason, but they have yet to do anything to lead anyone to believe that they will be any better at the end of this season than they have been the past three seasons. They have failed seemingly every big test they have faced this season on the road (outside of beating an injury-riddled Rockets team last month) and have looked lost late in games away from home.
After Monday’s 125-118 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers have now lost to the Spurs twice this season, in addition to losing to Golden State and Memphis in games in which they could have tested themselves against the elite teams in the West.
The Clippers’ current test, as they will remind you, is less about the teams they are playing than their recent schedule, which has them playing in every time zone over five days.
“I don’t know if this is the test I needed,” Rivers said. “You don’t play four games in five nights in four different time zones in the playoffs. You just don’t. Teams still go through it, and you don’t want to lose them all, but it could happen. That’s how hard these teams are. You just want to get through it. I’m more concerned about getting through it; that’s the test I’m more concerned about. Everyone goes through it. Some get through it better than others.”
Those other teams usually find a way to get through tough times and tough stretches in the playoffs, even if the circumstances might be different. Yes, the Clippers have played seven games in 11 days. It’s not easy, but they’re better than the 3-4 record they have posted in those games and they need to be better than the 0-4 record they have posted in the past four road games if they hope to do anything of substance this season.
The biggest issues for the Clippers have been on the defensive end. On Monday night, the Spurs had a season high in points (125), assists (37) and points in the first half (72). Boris Diaw also enjoyed a season-high 23 points off the bench. The Clippers have given up at least 100 points in four straight games and in eight of their past 10 games. That’s not a great trend for a team that has been preaching about wanting to be known as a defensive team rather than a highlight-reel, lob-dunking team.
“We have to be better,” DeAndre Jordan said. “It starts defensively. I felt like as a group, especially with our starting unit, our defense wasn't as good as it could have been, and I feel that’s what made us lose the game ... Everybody’s schedule is crazy in the NBA, so that can’t be an excuse. Everybody has guys that are banged up. With a team like this, the champs from last year, you know we’re going to learn a lot of things from these guys. There are some things that we need to correct and tighten up, but it’s still early in the season. We’ll be OK.”
The Spurs have won five championships and played in six NBA Finals over the past 15 years. None of the Clippers’ players aside from Glen Davis have ever won a championship. There might come a time when they can look past losses to San Antonio, Memphis and Golden State and say things will be better in the playoffs, but it’s not now.
Beating these teams consistently and getting a top seed still matters and will matter more than they’re letting on.
“Games like these are good tests,” Blake Griffin said. “If you don’t show what you've been studying and show what you've been working on and execute the things you've been talking about, it doesn't do much for you. We really have to be better.”
For a team with championship aspirations that is currently the sixth seed in the West despite not having to deal with any injuries to their starters, the Clippers remain quietly confident.
“I want to be healthy,” Rivers said. “I want to win some of them, but if we get out of it healthy, we did get something.”
While health would be a nice holiday gift, if the Clippers can find a way to beat the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday and get back home -- where they will play their next nine games -- maybe they can start to turn their season around instead of simply trying to survive it.
“They’re all winnable,” Griffin said. “I don’t know if I take the mindset of just ‘survive.’ I’d rather come in and just win them all, but obviously we haven’t done that; but we still have a chance to go .500 during this stretch, and that’s important.”