LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers are a team without an identity.
That's a scary thought for a team as it enters the final 13 games of the regular season.
This is not the time for a team to be looking at a blank canvas with nothing more than an idea of how it would like the final product to look.
The Clippers know what they want to be. They saw flashes of it during their 17-game winning streak earlier in the season and when they were a league-best 32-9 at the midway point.
They had a suffocating defense, were creating a ton of turnovers and were scoring in transition off those turnovers. Their second team wasn't just maintaining leads; it was extending them, as starters got to rest all or at least most of the fourth quarter.
All of that was born from a Clippers defense that has regressed during the second half of the season -- a big reason L.A. is 15-13 since the midway point and in a tight three-team race for the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 seeds in the West. Mere percentage points separate the Clippers from the Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets.
"The biggest thing is you have to have your identity going into the playoffs, and your defense has to be your catalyst," Chris Paul said. "I watch a lot of teams play night in and night out, and sometimes you're going to lose playing good defense because teams make shots that night. When you get into the playoffs, it's not about one night. If a team makes shots, they have to do it four of seven times.
"We know what we want [our identity] to be, but until we put it together for 48 minutes consistently game after game after game, we really got to mold it."
As much as the Clippers are known for Lob City and the highlight dunks by Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, everyone in the locker room understands that for those dunks and highlights to have any meaning the Clippers have to be a solid defensive team. On Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, they put together their best defensive performance of the season, holding the 76ers to 72 points -- a Clippers opponent low for the season -- as well as 36.7 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from beyond the arc.
"We want our identity to be a defensive team," Griffin said. "We don't want to have to make adjustments for every single team and switch things up but to make teams adjust to us and the way we play. …
"The thing that made us successful earlier in the season and the thing that makes us successful when we win now is our defense. That's really where it's at. We're going to have bad offensive games, but when we're playing well defensively, we're winning games."
Paul tries to watch every NBA game he can when he gets home and said it's no coincidence that the Miami Heat's 24-game winning streak and the Nuggets' 14-game winning streak have been fueled by defense. He has often talked to his close friend LeBron James about defense and how the Heat parlayed their stingy defense into a championship last year and are in position to do it again this year.
"I could care less if we're making shots, because you can't depend on that," Paul said. "Our defense has to lead us. That's the only way we got a chance going into the postseason, if our defense is right."
The problem for the Clippers is their defense hasn't been right lately, especially on the perimeter. They are the fourth-worst team in the NBA in 3-point defense, allowing teams to hit 37.8 percent from downtown and nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc in their 22 losses this season.
"It's unbelievable how teams seem to shoot the 3 against us," Paul said. "Seriously, the game in Sacramento we closed out and thought there's no way he can make this one, and they keep on making them. It seems like every night. Sooner or later someone will miss."
The Clippers have to hope the Nuggets and Grizzlies start missing soon, because as it stands, L.A. would open the playoffs against Denver. The Nuggets are 30-3 at home this season, tied with Miami for the best home record in the league. The Clippers understand where they are in the standings and how important it is to get a top-three seed but also realize that unless they can improve as a team, their seeding doesn't really matter.
"We see it every day," Griffin said of the standings. "It's up at our practice facility and in our locker room on the wall. We see it, but the thing for us is to not be worried or let that consume our thoughts, especially when we're trying to prepare for a game. It's about getting wins right now. You can't really control if a team is playing well unless you're playing them. We have to be good in every single game from here on out. We can't slip up at all."
The Clippers think there is still plenty of time to shape their identity before the playoffs.
"I don't know if we're necessarily ready for the playoffs, but at this point we don't have to be," Jamal Crawford said. "We still got a month left in the season; we'll get it together by then. We'll be ready by then. We just have to find the magic we had at the beginning of the season, and going into the playoffs I have no doubt that we will."
The Clippers know what kind of team they want to be, the hard part is making it happen with just 13 games left.
"We know what we have to do," Griffin said. "It's time to stop talking about it and actually do it."