VIDEO: Clippers coach Doc Rivers spares no one in assessing his team after a loss to the Hawks
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — It all makes sense now, the tough love approach and the constant reminders, in big wins or just plain ol’ wins, that nothing has been accomplished yet. There’s a method to the madness that is coach Doc Rivers‘ approach to dealing with his team, his new team (still). The Los Angeles Clippers, stacked as they might be and as talented as ever, are still not ready for prime time.
Doc knows it and wants them to understand it before they dive into any more challenges — real or hyped — by someone outside of the Clippers’ cocoon.
The numbers are pretty, starting with a 12-7 record that puts them on solid ground in the ultra-competitive Western Conference playoff chase. The star power — Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford are all healthy and in good form — remains. There is roster balance and depth and, other than J.J. Redick being injured, they have all the pieces they need.
But the splash is easily snatched away. The Hawks did so by dismantling the Clippers with a sound defensive plan and won going away Wednesday night at Philips Arena. They exposed the still fatal flaw of this Clippers team, one that Rivers has pointed out over and over again this season and again during a timeout huddle in the midst of the manhandling by the Hawks.
“Doc (Rivers) hit the nail on the head in one of our timeouts when he said that ‘playing hard isn’t enough,’ ” Paul said. “There a lot of people who play hard but are not in the NBA. We have to figure out a way to be effective.”
The Hawks taught the Clippers’ big men a lesson. Both Paul Millsap (a game-high 25 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three blocks) and Al Horford (21 points and nine rebounds) went to work on them, getting what they wanted, where and when they wanted, all night long against Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jared Dudley and Ryan Hollins. Hawks swingman Kyle Korver returned from a four-game injury absence and tied Dana Barros‘ record of 89 straight games with a made 3-pointer, on the first play of the game no less.
If this is the Clippers’ front line of defense and the defense they’re going to play against a solid-but-far-from-great team, it’s going to be a tough season against outfits capable of attacking them the way the Hawks did. Outfits like the one they’ll see tonight in Memphis (8 ET, League Pass) on the second stop on their seven-game road trip.
The defensive challenges will remain until the Clippers’ biggest stars decide enough is enough. And right now, ranking at the bottom of the league in all the significant defensive categories is not going to cut it.
“We’ve got to stop talking about it and we’ve got to figure out how were going to stop teams,” Paul said. “I am surprised because we know what to do. That’s the tough part about it. It’s not on the coaches, it’s on us in the locker room.”
That’s where things really get twisted for the Clippers. They have a relatively harmonious locker room (injured forward Matt Barnes was not around). It’s not like they are still navigating the transition from the old regime to Rivers’ crew. The leadership structure from last season is, for the most part, intact.
All of the chatter that accompanied the arrival of Rivers and the free agents, not to mention Paul sticking around instead of exploring his free-agent options, cloaked the very real possibility that the championship chase many expected to start in the summer wouldn’t really get underway until late December or early January.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Crawford said. “You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to have that synergy where you’re clicking on and off the court. And I don’t think we’re at that point yet. But I don’t think we should be right now. Going towards the end of the season and the playoffs is when you need to be in sync like that. We’re not there yet. And I don’t want to be there yet. I don’t want this group to peak too early.”
Rivers needs them to steady things long before April. He needs a cohesive group to find their groove and assert themselves on a nightly basis. Rivers needs a core unit that can muster the toughness to beat back teams like the Hawks and even the Grizzlies, who are not the same team that trampled the Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs last season.
This straight-talk approach Rivers is using in an attempt to wean this team from some of its tried-and-true bad habits is the right one. There’s no timetable, the coach made that clear repeatedly. And there’s no sense in trying to measure it after each and every game.
The defensive-minded team that Rivers wants to coach has not yet materialized. When, and perhaps more importantly, if, they show up is anyone’s guess.
“We’re not there yet,” Rivers said, talking about not only his team’s defensive mettle but also its spirit.
Not even close.
“I don’t know what it is,” Rivers said. “Every team is different. Some teams get it right away and some teams it takes a while. But there is no rhyme or reason to it. You know when you got it. I can tell you that. And you also know when you don’t. But it just takes time. From a coaching perspective you just have to be really patient with it. And as long as you think there is improvement, that’s what you want. And we’re having that for sure.”