LOS ANGELES – Lob City sells tickets. But defense wins championships.
That’s the way the basketball purists are approaching the Los Angeles Clippers, the hottest and “best” team in basketball as we speed toward the end of the year the Mayans said would be the end of for us all.
It seems fitting that the Clippers, of all franchises, would be in this position. They’ve never had the best record in the league this late in the season. And they’re fighting a legacy of futility that makes it tough for guys like TNT’s Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith to truly believe in what they’re seeing out of a team that has won a franchise-record 15 straight games.
But what would your reaction be to the news that the Clippers — even with all of the alley-oop action we’ve enjoyed from Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — are as much of a defensive powerhouse right now as they are entertaining and athletic?
The fact is, the Clippers are the second-best defensive team in the league behind Indiana and rank as the most improved defensive team in basketball, ahead of Golden State, Minnesota and Indiana.
|Top five defenses, 2012-13|
DefRtg = Points allowed per
If you’re not interested in the metrics, give them the eyeball test that Celtics coach Doc Rivers did before, during and after the Clippers put the smackdown on his team Thursday night on TNT. It’s hard to dismiss the Clippers when they are up in the grill of a team that built its foundation on defense, the bedrock that led to a championship during their spectacular run of the past five seasons.
“Last year, I think they showed up and they just thought their talent and their offense was [going to win for them],” Rivers said. “But this year their defense has been fantastic. I mean, we’re all talking about their offense, but they’re playing just terrific defense. And they have balance now. They’re fifth in the league in scoring, fifth in defense. That’s a balanced basketball team and that makes you really good.”
Still, the Clippers are fighting to dispel any notion that this is just a momentary run and that they are the Clippers of yore, when they were a team that quite frankly could not be counted on to do things the way they’re doing them now that Paul is a part of the organization.
“They have a terrific team,” Rivers said. “Every year is a new year, but they’re good. They’re talented and they play together. They all accept their roles. They’re actually a fun team to watch play, other than the dunks. They’re just a fun team to watch play the game.”
Barkley questioned whether the Clippers could keep this up — playing at their fevered and physical pitch and also playing every man in uniform and getting contributions from them all — when the games slow down in the playoffs. It’s a fair question that won’t be answered until April and May, depending on how deep the Clippers play into the postseason.
And it’s not realistic to believe that Matt Barnes will stretch his current streak of nine straight games of scoring double figures off the bench or that Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Eric Bledsoe will continue to provide the starters an opportunity to rest in the fourth quarter of every game.
But don’t tell that to Paul.
“I’ve probably sat out more fourth quarters this year than all my previous seven seasons,” he said. “People talk about how me and Blake’s numbers are down. Well, we don’t play many fourth quarters. And I think it just says a lot about our team and how everything is balanced.”
Balanced in every way. Their production from up and down the roster is at the heart of not only this 15-game streak but also their league-best 23-6 record (the Thunder are 22-6).
Most improved DefRtg
Just as impressive, though, is the focus the Clippers bring every night. And it’s opponent specific. They had to battle a team built similarly to theirs in the Denver Nuggets on Christmas and beat them into submission over the course of four quarters. The Celtics brought a different level of animosity to the Staples Center and the Clippers responded in kind.
“[The Celtics] played very intense, they played aggressive, they played physical,” Griffin said. “And I thought we did a good job of matching that.”
Perhaps best of all is that the Clippers don’t seem nearly as preoccupied with their current streak as others. Their focus is on the developing the chemistry and cohesion needed for finishing the marathon in style.
“I don’t really care about it,” Jordan said of the streak. “We’re just playing, we’re rolling. Everybody’s clicking and we’re starting to gel even more. We still have some guys out. Hopefully when they come back we’ll still be able to keep things going.”