OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s taken nearly three-quarters of the season, but it seems the Los Angeles Clippers, through injury and inconsistency and now with trade deadline rumors buried, are forging the most important bond a team can form: Trust.
“This is our team,” Chris Paul said. “If we’re going to win it all this is who we’re going to do it with, so if we can’t get on one another and understand that we have one common goal … that’s what winning teams do, they understand it’s nothing personal.
“Our team, we talk a lot more than we used to in the past, try not to leave anything unsaid. We’re a family and we play like that.”
Paul is strengthening his trust in coach Doc Rivers and in forward Blake Griffin. Griffin’s developing greater trust in Paul and, as in Sunday’s 125-117 road win at the Oklahoma City Thunder that required a push of crunch-time execution to complete the job, the Clippers (38-20) are learning to trust in the system.
Perhaps most crucial to success is the bond between L.A.’s two All-Stars. And while no one wishes injury upon anyone, the separated shoulder that sidelined Paul for five weeks until right before the All-Star break may have served a greater purpose.
Griffin, the evolving, 24-year-old power forward, uncorked a phenomenal stretch, and while he remains well under the radar as an MVP candidate behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James, his all-around performances were central to the Clippers going 12-6 without Paul, the league’s assist leader and almost universally regarded as the top point guard in the game.
“The biggest thing is you see me and Blake’s relationship, we talk all game long,” said Paul, who said he didn’t expect to play against the Thunder because of a badly swollen right thumb, yet accumulated 18 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and one turnover in 39 minutes. “I think we both realize how much we need each other. When I was out I got a chance to really see his growth and how dominant he is. So me, I’m out there to facilitate and pick my spots, but we’re really starting to get that chemistry at the right time.”
Griffin was the youthful, hopeful face of a downtrodden franchise. Paul arrived as the savior. There have been whispers throughout their now three seasons together about whether they liked one another, whether they could play together and succeed together. Griffin said Paul’s absence helped him grasp his larger importance to the team and to emerge with a stronger voice.
“It’s been important for us as a team to learn to have to play without him because I think at times we relied a little bit too much on him,” Griffin said. “At the end of games you kind of think, ‘OK, we have the ball and it’s in our guy’s hands and we’re just going to kind of let him do his thing. I think we really had to rely on our system.
“And for me, really, taking a different approach as far as being a leader for our team and having a little bit more vocal approach with him out, I think it was good for me.”
The Clippers trusted in the system and stuck with it at both ends after blowing a 15-point lead, 95-80, with 2:14 left in the third quarter and taking only a 99-93 margin into the fourth quarter.
From there, the Clippers closed it out with a 13-2 run in which Paul, Griffin — who didn’t have his best game, but fought through foul trouble for 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists — and Jamal Crawford (36 points and five 3-pointers) combined for the final flurry.
It was a significant win for a team that only evened its road record at 15-15 and hadn’t beaten a top tier team away from Staples Center since Houston way back in November. The Clippers had already stumbled twice out of the All-Star break while reintegrating Paul — much as the Thunder are doing now with Russell Westbrook — including losing at home to a San Antonio team without Tony Parker and then a couple nights later at nemesis Memphis.
On Sunday afternoon they beat OKC’s fourth-rated defense badly in the first half in transition and throughout the game with a 3-ball that was expected to be prolific for them this season, but hasn’t. Matt Barnes went 6-for-10 from deep, and the Clippers believe when J.J. Redick is ready to return (likely before the playoffs) that they’ll finally be the team they always thought they would be — playing with pace, spreading the floor, rolling to the bucket for dunks and launching 3s for quick, momentum-turning scoring bursts.
“It’s funny [we’ve been] trying to get Matt to run to the corners all year and now he’s doing it, and that’s a good shot for him, we can get it in transition,” Rivers said. “And when he does run there, that’s why D.J. [DeAndre Jordan] gets the dunks because the guards have to make a choice, take D.J. or leave the guy in the corner, and it’s really helped us.”
The question facing the Clippers: Can they build off this singular victory as they head into the final 24 games? Paul said they’ll find out Monday night when they play at New Orleans.
Because through 58 games even Rivers said he’s unsure of the kind of team he’s got on his hands.
“I think we know, but I don’t really know,” Rivers said. “We haven’t had a lot of games together. But nobody really cares about it except for us, so we just have to keep working, and if we do get our group together, the minutes that everyone had I have to think it will help our team overall.”