By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
HOUSTON — The signs and the opportunities were all there.
The night was barely six minutes old when Blake Griffin went to the floor reaching for his back and had to be helped into the locker room by the training staff.
They hadn’t even played two minutes into the second quarter when Glen “Big Baby” Davis was yanked off the floor by coach Doc Rivers, exchanged a few careless words with the boss and was then escorted to the locker room by security guards.
Thirty six seconds later, Houston rookie Isaiah Canaan pulled up to nail a 3-pointer and the hole was 15 points.
This was always the book on how to beat the Clippers. Show them some adversity, get them running their mouths instead of their offense and they’d come unwound like the springs in a cheap watch.
It happened time after time when opposing teams would reach in to push and grab and topple Griffin on one of his rim-rattling sorties to the hoop. It happened when Chris Paul would get caught up in a frenzy and draw technical fouls that didn’t just cost his team points, but let opponents know they were rattling him. It happened after they built a 2-0 lead on the Grizzlies last year in the first round of the playoffs.
Not this time. Not now. Not so much anymore in a season where the Clippers are getting closer, wiser, tougher. Maybe just growing up.
“I think it’s big,” said forward Matt Barnes after a 118-107 comeback win. “I think it’s what we lacked last year. I think it’s a big sign of maturity. It comes from just more experience … I think it’s just a collective effort.
“Last year that was our weakness. We were mentally weak. Collective focus on being mentally tough has got us a long way this year.
“Hats off to our team for putting up with it — the tic-tac fouls and technical fouls and Blake getting beat up. It’s all a tactic by the other team to get us out of our game. So far, I think we’ve done a pretty good job this season to sticking with the course.”
Rivers has brought a much-needed sense of know-how and stability to an organization and a team that won a franchise-record 56 games a year ago, but didn’t really comprehend how to handle or channel the things that make for real success.
The veteran coach and classroom teacher gave another lesson when he didn’t think twice about bouncing Davis from his own lineup, even on a night when Griffin had already been lost.
“Nothing went on with me,” Rivers said. “I thought Baby was just too emotional. For me, if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you there till the next game.
“I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight. So we told him to go in the locker room.
“I’ve said it about emotional hijacks. If you have one, you’re gonna sit in the back. We’ve talked about that as a group.
“I didn’t make a big deal. I didn’t address it at halftime. It’s not a big deal. We needed him, but he wasn’t here emotionally. So you tell him to go sit.”
While Davis sat and another backup big man Danny Granger was sent back to Los Angeles with a strained hamstring, the Clippers dug deep into the roster for help from Jamal Crawford (also nursing a calf injury), Willie Green, Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock, Ryan Hollins, even Hedo Turkoglu to close out a 4-0 sweep of the season series over the Rockets and to officially clinch a spot in the playoffs.
The Rockets were playing without the injured Dwight Howard (ankle) and Patrick Beverley (knee), but these are different days, different times, for the Clippers, when making the playoffs is no longer the goal. And if they are going to finally get over that playoff hurdle, this is how they’ll have to do it.
“I look at all that stuff as good stuff for us,” Rivers said. “Blake goes down. Jamal’s going in and out. That stuff’s good for us. We don’t want it. We don’t want any of it.”
They’ll simply live with it and move on.
The Clippers played 19 games when Paul was out with a separated shoulder and not only stayed afloat, but rose. J.J. Redick has missed 44 games and hasn’t played at all since early February due to a bulging disc and they’ve had others step up to hit the outside shots. Crawford’s ongoing leg problems could force Rivers to sit him down the stretch to make sure he’s fully healed and ready for the playoffs. They thought they’d get more of a bump when they signed Granger as a free agent, but that has not happened.
Yet they’ve won eight of their last 10 and — depending on the prognosis on Griffin’s back — seem to have a firm hold on the No. 3 seed in the West. He and DeAndre Jordan are the only two to play in every game this season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team like this,” Paul said. “I think when guys come to the arena they’re just ready. It’s happened all season long. Nobody’s ever sitting over there not expecting to play. Guys know that their number might be called.
“On a lot of teams, when a guy goes down, guys start looking for excuses and stuff like that. I’ve been on teams like that. But our teams, it’s, ‘all right, we know what to do. You know what your role is.’ ”
Experience, wisdom, being disciplined and mentally tougher rather than simply talking tough are steadily becoming valued traits.
Maybe it’s time to think about rewriting that old book on the Clippers.
“I think so,” said Paul. “It’s not just a few of our guys. It’s the whole team. From guys like Willie Green, Matt, Dud, guys coming in, guys like that. We’re playing with a purpose.”