Piece by piece, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed to find themselves during their recent three-game stay at Staples Center.
On Saturday, it was the stifling defense, albeit against the shorthanded Cleveland Cavaliers, to fuel the Clippers’ first 30-point thrashing since November. On Monday, it was Chris Paul’s flawless control of the offense (13 assists, no turnovers), with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan flying up the floor. On Tuesday, it was J.J. Redick’s textbook shooting stroke and the bench shining every which way, be it with four double-digit scorers or with stop after stop in the second quarter, against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Come Thursday, it became clear during the Clippers’ 97-95 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center that the team’s return to form isn’t quite complete.
“This team has a great belief,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “I think the last week or two, they got it back. But now we’ve got to execute.”
L.A. struggled to do so down the stretch in Dallas. The Clippers didn’t score a single point over the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation while watching a fragile three-point lead slip through their fingers. The breakneck pace that fueled L.A.’s 22-4 run to end the first half ground to a screeching halt down the stretch.
“In the fourth quarter, you can’t get stagnant, and that’s me,” said Paul, who finished with 15 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals in 35 minutes. “I have to keep the tempo going. We have to stay aggressive and just try to hold on to the win.”
The Mavericks had no answer for L.A.’s bigs when the Clippers played fast. Jordan converted all six of his field-goal attempts and crashed the glass for 18 rebounds, including six on the offensive end. Griffin got to the rack for the lion’s share of his team-high 21 points, but found plenty of resistance inside when the offense slowed and didn’t fare so well when he drifted outsdie (3-of-10 outside the paint).
For Rivers, that duo’s dynamic physical abilities comprise a great “gift” for the Clippers. It’s when the team casts it aside, like a toy that’s no longer amusing a month after the holidays, that things go awry.
“What separates us is we have two bigs that are athletic, fast and have power,” Rivers said, “so we should never play slow.”
Yet, so often, the Clippers do. On Doc’s watch, they’ve slipped from seventh in the league in possessions per game in 2013-14, to 11th in 2014-15, to 17th last season and 18th with nine games to go this season.
In the aggregate, L.A. has actually played faster late in close contests. According to NBA.com, they rank fourth in pace during the last three minutes of games with neither team ahead or behind by more than three points.
Trouble is, that speed has often killed the Clippers. Under those same circumstances, they’ve notched a net rating of minus-10.0 points per 100 possessions—a bottom-10 mark league-wide. They’ve also turned it over 17.8 percent of the time (fourth-worst) when within three points in the final three minutes of games. On Thursday, Paul, Griffin and Jamal Crawford each gave it back to the Mavs during critical possessions.
“I just thought we had poor execution on a couple plays,” Rivers said. “That’s going to be what we have to get great at.”
The Clippers’ issues weren’t restricted to the final few unfortunate minutes. Doc wasn’t pleased with how his guys succumbed to a 13-2 Dallas run to start the third quarter, especially after heading into the locker room at halftime on such a high. Paul chastised himself for picking up a technical foul—his seventh of the season—in the middle of the fourth quarter.
And yet, for all their nitpick-able faults, the Clippers would’ve snuck out of Dallas with their fourth win in a row had Redick converted clean look from the corner at the buzzer.
“Hell of a play that Doc drew up,” Paul said. “I was right there looking at it, and it looked good.”
By and large, the Clippers looked good, too. The defensive effort was steady throughout. The bench gave them a boost and outscored its Dallas counterparts, 31-26. An off night from the offense on the road, near the tail-end of a brutal March schedule, is far from a five-alarm fire. Above all else, everyone is healthy, though Paul’s left arm seemed to give him some trouble in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers don’t need a complete makeover ahead of what’s all but guaranteed to be their franchise-record sixth straight playoff appearance. Some tweaks and adjustments to get back to the team they once were and know they can be should suffice.
At this point, the most pressing concern is time—or rather, the lack thereof. L.A. has just nine games left on its regular-season slate, with a must-see matchup against the fourth-place Utah Jazz on tap for a Saturday matinee.
“We haven’t had a chance to get right, to get going,” Rivers said, “so we have to view every game as preparation. We can’t take one game off.”