OKC game proves another learning experience for Clippers

LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers still doesn't know what kind of a team the Los Angeles Clippers are.

He knows what they were when he arrived five months ago and he knows where they can be five months from now, but he's still trying to figure out what kind of team he's coaching at the moment.

There were times during the Clippers' 111-103 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night where Rivers could see glimpses of what he hopes will one day be the finished product, but for now it remains a work in progress.

"We've had it a couple times," Rivers said. "The beginning of the game, the fight back before the end of halftime, and the third quarter, where every single guy came in and did something. This is the vision."

Rivers was cautious not to make too much of winning the ninth game of the season in mid-November. Far too often last season, these games were viewed as barometer games or statement games that were quickly forgotten come playoff time.

Every game technically matters, but the Clippers have learned over the past two seasons that big wins over big teams in the regular season aren't really a big deal when the postseason comes around. You can win 17 games in a row, win 56 games in the season and win the division and still have your season end with four straight losses in the first round of the playoffs.

"It's a regular game now," Rivers said afterward. "It's one of 82, but during the game it wasn't, clearly. You could see both teams had a lot of interest in winning the game. I like games like this. They're fun to be in. You learn a little bit about your team."

So what did Rivers learn?

"That we can fight back," Rivers said. "They were the more physical team, and at halftime we talked about it and they scored 41 points in the second half and had zero transition points in the third quarter. That's who we can be for 48 minutes. We're just not there yet."

The Clippers certainly showed their fight with six seconds left in the second quarter when Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka got tangled up under the basket and Matt Barnes came in and shoved Ibaka. The play resulted in the ejections of Barnes and Ibaka, and a technical foul on Griffin.

It was clearly the turning point as the Clippers responded by outscoring the Thunder 30-16 in the third quarter and holding Oklahoma City to just 29.4 percent shooting in those 12 minutes.

"It was pretty intense," Chris Paul said. "Our defense was tremendous in the second half. We started helping each other and limiting their fast-break points and got the win. We were two totally different teams from the half to the second. Coach challenged us at halftime, told us we need to bring it a little more."

Players and coaches on both teams acted as if Wednesday was just another game, but it was clear that it wasn't when it began. It was a preview of what some predict could be the Western Conference finals, and both teams went at each other as if it were a playoff game at times.

"It was a game with meaning," Rivers said. "Neither team is really ready for the playoffs. You could see that. Both teams were going too fast at times."

While a scuffle before halftime and the physicality of the game certainly had the feel of a playoff game, Paul was quick to point out that he wants the Clippers to be the better team at the end of the day, not necessarily the tougher team.

"I think at times, toughness can be mistaken in the form of being ready to fight and stuff like that," Paul said. "But toughness comes down to basketball. Ain't nobody in the NBA holding the world championship belt."

Rivers smiled as he looked down at the stat sheet after the game. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it was another win and another learning experience for a team that is being touted as championship contenders before ever winning anything. It reminded Rivers of another team in a similar position a few years back that ended up doing just fine at the end of the day.

"All we can do is get better from this," Rivers said. "I always go back to Miami's first year together. They were under attack every night and all it did was brought them together. It made them better at the end the day. This is good for us. I love it. I think it's absolutely wonderful."