BOSTON -- When the Los Angeles Clippers embarked on this three-game road trip to New York, Philadelphia and Boston, they constantly referred to it as a “business trip.”
It may seem like a cliché, but the Clippers haven’t always understood the importance of a “business trip” when they leave Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we’ve been a great travel team for the most part,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “In big games, we seem to play well on the road, but we’re up and down.”
If you look at the records of the Knicks, 76ers and Celtics, it would be a stretch to call any a “big game” on paper, but with eight games left in the season and the Clippers within striking range of a top-three seed, every game is big now.
“I thought the guys had an amazing focus when they left,” Rivers said. “You could just tell that they were going to take this trip very seriously. They looked at the games, and these were games we could get. But, you have to play to get them, and they did that. I’m very proud of them.”
After beating the Boston Celtics 119-106 on Sunday, the Clippers are not only 3-0 on their last long road trip of the season, they also are currently on a seven-game winning streak, their second-longest run of the season. They are also now within one game of the Houston Rockets for the No. 3 seed and a game and a half back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 2 seed. The Clippers play the Grizzlies at Staples Center next month, so they could easily make up that difference by the end of the season.
Of course, the importance of getting the No. 2 seed would be grabbing home-court advantage not only in the first round but the second round, and skipping a postseason rematch with the Golden State Warriors until the conference finals.
“That’s why all the games are important,” Rivers said. “That’s fun. At least I know that now. You can see it. It’s pretty easy. We have eight games left.”
More important than moving up the standings and improving their seeding, the Clippers are also playing their best basketball of the season when it matters most. The common thread of their current seven-game winning streak has been a pesky defense that has helped jump-start an offense that is moving the ball better than it has all season.
“Our defense [has been the key], clearly,” Rivers said. “Our offense is beautiful to watch but I think our guys have finally connected the dots. When we’re good defensively, we’re really good offensively. That’s something we’ve been trying to get them to see all year. Those dots are connected. They get it. The first thing they said when they went back in was ‘Get stops and we’ll score.’ If we don’t get stops, then we have to play half court and it’s harder to score. I think they have that down.”
It’s a style Rivers has been preaching since training camp, but for whatever reason it took the Clippers longer than anticipated to pick up where they left off last season, just two wins short of their first-ever conference finals in the face of the Donald Sterling controversy. It seemed as if they thought it would all come together easily when they reconvened at training camp over six months ago.
“At the beginning of the year when we were struggling,” J.J. Redick said, “we watched a couple of games from the Oklahoma City [playoff] series and the way we played then was not how we were playing at the beginning of the year. It was almost like, ‘Whoa.’ But we’re getting there. We’re definitely getting there. To win games in the playoffs you have to play with pace and you have to get the ball to your second and third option.”
The way the Clippers are moving the ball is actually better than it was last season. In fact, many of the Clippers players believe it’s the best they’ve played during their current run of four consecutive playoff berths.
Redick and Matt Barnes are enjoying career seasons from 3-point range. Chris Paul is playing like an MVP candidate and DeAndre Jordan is playing like a defensive player of the year candidate, and both have started every game this season. It’s a big reason the Clippers have not only been able to survive but thrive while missing Blake Griffin for 15 games and Jamal Crawford for the past 13 games.
“We have a really good rhythm right now, especially that first unit,” Redick said. “With the way teams load to the strong side, you really have to get to your second option, sometimes your third option, and that requires you to swing the ball from side to side and a lot of our possessions end with multiple passes on multiple sides. The other thing that’s happened in this stretch is our first unit is getting stops and we get to go against a defense in transition that’s not set. That creates a lot of problems.
“A defense essentially has to make tough decisions. Do we stop Chris on the pick-and-roll and leave D.J. to roll? Do we stop D.J. to roll and leave the weakside corner open, which is usually either Matt or me. So we’re creating problems and making it tough on the defense.”
As much as the Clippers are pushing to finish the season strong and have home court for as long as possible in the postseason, they also realize that their season ended last year on their home court in a series in which they lost twice at Staples Center. While home court is great, it’s more about how well you’re playing this time of year and the Clippers like the way they’re playing right now.
“We could definitely use [home court], but Doc always says, ‘In order to win a championship, you have to win a game on the road at some point,’” Paul said. “In the West, it’s so deep and so tough that home court might mean but so much.”