Clippers have flashy O, need gritty D

LOS ANGELES -- New Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul made the playoffs three times in his six seasons as a New Orleans Hornet, never winning fewer than 37 games or more than 56.

Things changed offensively each year, Paul recalled -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But the other side of the ball didn't waver.

The lone constant in the three seasons that featured playoff runs: defense.

"The thing about those teams was always our defensive intensity," Paul said Sunday, after the Clippers' 93-88 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. "Even last year. It's all about defense, and that's the thing that we've been preaching to each other day in and day out."

According to his new teammates, Paul's been doing a lot of that preaching. Forward Ryan Gomes said the 26-year-old guard has pulled the team aside more than once since arriving in L.A. last month to emphasize the importance of defensive intensity, especially in an atmosphere such as that which surrounds the Clippers currently.

After they gave up 114 points to Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls on Friday, the Clippers had a collective groan-fest when watching the tape the next day. Paul seized the opportunity to tell his teammates -- including young players like superstar forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan -- that they wouldn't have to suffer many more losses like that if they stepped it up defensively.

Each day, everyone wants to hear the latest update of how the new team is "jelling." Players are asked about it nightly, asked when they expect the jelling process to be completed. And point totals are the figure most often examined for evidence to that end.

But Gomes says defense is a "much better barometer" of the team's progress than offense is, and thus Sunday's game was the best example so far that the Clippers are improving as a team on the young season.

Now it's a matter of consistency. Ball pressure was the constant against the Blazers, but it may not work on a nightly basis.

"What kind of defensive team are we going to be?" Gomes asked after the win over Portland. "We have to find a staple. Are we going to be a scrappy type of team? Are we going to be an overaggressive type of team? We don't have that identity yet.

"But we know this: When you cause havoc, that's when you give yourself a chance."

The Clippers caused havoc Sunday, at least for the first 36 minutes. Portland had just 52 points heading into the fourth quarter after averaging 78 through three quarters in its first three contests.

"You saw the intensity we were giving early," Griffin said. "We were scrapping, getting steals. We executed well and were on our rotations."

Of course, the Blazers proceeded to equal their point total from the first half in a fierce fourth quarter, shooting 63 percent from the field and scoring 36 points. But Portland was the NBA's highest-scoring team over the first week of play.

The Clippers considered it a job well done.

"We helped one another tonight," said guard Mo Williams, who had three of the Clippers' 11 steals coming off the bench. "We trusted our defensive assignments, our schemes, and we stayed with them.

"Even when they made their run, we didn't change -- we just believed in what we did."

The film session on the Bulls stood out in another way, too. Just as the Clippers were getting worked on the defensive end, Chicago was keeping them in check on the other side.

It wasn't shutdown defense -- the Clippers still scored 101 points. But it was make-it-a-little-tougher-on-them defense, and it worked well.

"They make us work. We need to make them work," Gomes said. "When Blake goes to the basket they're fouling him. We've gotta be like the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs, how they play their defense."

Available improvements include the glass, where the Clippers were again outrebounded by Portland, 46-38. L.A. hasn't beaten a team in that category yet this season. That won't be the team's identity, clearly, but it's an aspect in which the Clippers need to get better in order to establish any identity.

As they see it, if they keep pressure up on the perimeter most nights and force penetrators inside, where they'll face the shot-blocking ability of Jordan, they'll be just fine.

"You have to do something that you hang your hat on all of the time," Gomes said. "We've got shot-blockers. We've got guys who play aggressively on the wings.

"But one thing we have to do is be a little more physical."