Clippers Finding Their Way on Defense During Stretch Run to NBA Playoffs

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LOS ANGELES — The late, great Frank Sinatra once crooned about what a difference a day makes. For the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s another “D” word—defense—that could change their fortunes for the better.

It certainly helped on Monday night as the Clippers extended a franchise-best 10-game winning streak over the New York Knicks with a 114-105 victory. The Clippers shot a scintillating 55.8 percent from the floor during the first half at Staples Center, but went into the locker room with a 10-point lead that felt like anything but commanding to head coach Doc Rivers.

“When you’re a coach and you’re looking at that,” Rivers said, “that’s scary because that’s going to go one way or the other.”

Everything seemed to fall in L.A.’s favor during the third quarter. In that frame alone, Blake Griffin added 10 points to his game-high 30, Chris Paul logged eight of his 13 points and five of his 13 assists and the Clippers hit 6-of-11 three-point attempts.

Altogether, the home team scored 34 points—including 11 unanswered in a 74-second span—in the period, but that explosion wouldn’t have come without dynamite defense on the other end.

“That was spectacular,” Rivers remarked. “Defense leads to offense.”

During that third-quarter spurt, Luc Mbah a Moute turned a steal off Knicks rookie Willy Hernangomez into an easy two and Paul converted a blindside block by Griffin on Hernangomez into the first of two straight triples that stretched L.A.’s lead out to 23.

“You’re going to make shots some nights, you’re going to miss some nights,” Paul said. “But it’s defense, that’s where you build the trust and you build your identity.”

The Clippers have been searching for themselves on that end for a while now. Since their NBA-best 14-2 start, they’ve let up 108.3 points per 100 possessions—the 11th-worst mark in the league.

Injuries to Paul and Griffin left them scrambling for ways to scrape out wins rather than for each other on defense. Both superstars have been back in action since February 24, but the defense had lapsed all the same. Amid the reintroduction of wounded stars and a return to the rotation that had them firing on all cylinders early, the Clippers let up the second-most points per 100 possessions in the league, behind only the Los Angeles Lakers.

The tide, though, may be turning for the Clippers. They found some of their old groove on Saturday, holding the shorthanded Cleveland Cavaliers to 78 points on 38.6 percent shooting to score their first 30-point win since mid-November. Two days later, they got into it a bit more after halftime.

The benefits of better defensive effort are already clear for the Clippers. The more consistently attentive they are on that end, the more stops they get, the more they can get out and run early—and rest their starters late, as they have in each of their last two fourth quarters.

“That’s always the idea,” Paul said. “If you can get a lead, you don’t want to have to play late.”

That’s all the more important during a stretch of eight games in 12 days in the middle of what’s already been a brutal March schedule.

Despite those obstacles, the Clippers find themselves one game back of the Utah Jazz in the race for a slice of home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs. With just four road games and four dates with winning teams among the 11 left on its slate, L.A. can make up some serious ground between now and the end of the regular season.

To make that happen, this team must prove that it can carry a tune togon defense.

“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Paul said. “Our team begins and ends on the defensive end.”

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