LOS ANGELES -- Credits earned in the regular season don’t always carry over into the playoffs, as the Los Angeles Clippers learned last year when their first Pacific Division championship, home-court advantage and a 2-0 lead in the first round quickly vanished into the teeth of the Memphis Grizzlies.
It feels like this season’s Clippers squad has a higher credit rating. If there’s one thing the Clippers have earned, it’s the benefit of the doubt even as they carry an array of injury issues with them into the final stage of the season. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford might not suit up in any of the remaining regular-season games? That might go for Danny Granger as well? Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick are walking around like they could use a day spent at the chiropractor’s office? Shouldn’t matter.
The Clippers have proved their adaptability over the course of the season. They have played at least nine games with four versions of their starting lineup, and have winning records with all four of them. They’re 11-5 with Chris Paul, Redick, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin and Jared Dudley. They’re 8-3 with Paul, Crawford, Jordan, Griffin and Dudley. They’re 6-3 with Darren Collison, Redick, Jordan, Griffin and Matt Barnes. They’re 12-2 with Paul, Collison, Jordan, Griffin and Barnes.
Sunday was the first time they used the lineup of Paul, Redick, Jordan, Griffin and Barnes, and they’re 1-0 with that combo after beating the Lakers 120-97.
“Our mindset as a team -- and you can just feel it before every game, no matter who’s playing or who’s not playing -- we’ve just got to go execute our stuff and we’ve got a chance to win, every single night,” Griffin said. “I think that was really evident, especially when CP went down [13-6 without Paul in the starting lineup]. Because everybody kind of wrote us off a little bit. And then when he came back, J.J.’s out. Guys don’t really make excuses. ‘Oh, he’s not playing tonight? It’s my turn, it’s his turn, it’s somebody’s turn.’
“That’s encouraging going into the playoffs, just to know that whoever we have on the court, we’re going to compete.”
It’s the best thing they have going for them. And sometimes all it takes is having one best thing.
“I think we know who we are,” Griffin said.
They have to realize that they’re not defensive stalwarts. They’re also the second-worst team in the league in allowing opponents offensive rebounds, even though Jordan is the NBA’s top individual rebounder. But they’ve maintained the NBA’s top scoring offense despite the lineup fluctuations. That has to start with Griffin, of course, averaging 24 points a night with only five games with fewer than 20 points since Dec. 16.
More attention should be paid to Collison, who has gone from backup point guard to starting point guard to starting shooting guard depending on the situation.
It looked bad Jan. 4 when, in Collison’s first game starting after Paul injured his right shoulder, the Clippers lost by 24 points in San Antonio. Reflecting on it later, Doc Rivers realized they let Collison down by asking him to fill Paul’s role rather than play his own. After that, the Clippers won five in a row and 12 of their next 14 while Paul recovered. Collison averaged 14 points and six assists and shot 51 percent during that stretch.
“If I’m going to start, I’m going to play my game,” Collison said. “That’s when I play my best. I firmly believe that. I’m an aggressive player -- sometimes I can be overaggressive -- but that’s just how I play.”
You’ll often hear Rivers and other Clippers players say they’d like Chris Paul to share that mindset -- to look for his shot from the get-go. That’s especially true now that Paul has regained his 3-point shooting touch. His 3-point percentage of .349 this season is one of the lowest of his career, but he made all four of his attempts Sunday, the fourth time in the past six games he’s made at least four 3-pointers.
So here are the safe bets for the Clippers heading into the playoffs: Griffin and Paul playing like top-10 players. Double-doubles from Jordan. Collison quietly doing what’s necessary. Group confidence in Doc Rivers.
That’s a lot to work with, before adding the possibilities of Redick (who made 7 of 11 shots Sunday) and Crawford.
At this point, the knowns are outweighing the unknowns.
“It just shows we have a lot of experience out there,” Collison said. “No matter who’s down, no matter who’s hurt, it seems like another guy’s coming in, stepping in and contributing the way he needs to contribute.”