By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
VIDEO: The Clippers won a physical game in Oklahoma City back in late February
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The last time the Clippers and Thunder engaged in battle in late February, L.A. left Oklahoma City with a hard-fought W and three hard-earned Ts.
Technical fouls follow the Clips like a cartoon-strip storm cloud, always overhead, always ready to rain down at a whistle’s notice. Tonight’s meaningful Western Conference matchup between the Thunder and Clippers at Staples Center (10:30 p.m., ESPN), won’t be for the faint of heart or short of temper.
The Clippers are nipping at the Thunder’s heels, just 1.5 games back of the No. 2 seed, important because it guarantees homecourt advantage through the second round. These two title contenders enter tonight’s game ranking in the top seven in the league in three separate categories: Offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and technical fouls.
“Obviously we’ve got to get better because we’re a very emotional team,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said recently in Dallas after another three-technical outing, in which he got one. “We probably lead the league in techs, something like that.”
Something like that. The Thunder is actually the league’s runaway technical-foul leader with 90. The Clippers are second with 76. It’s a recurring theme first-year coach Doc Rivers inherited and has made him ponder whether his team is too hot-headed. He’s worked hard to, if not eliminate, at least diminish the potentially detrimental trait in his team’s makeup.
“Emotional and mental toughness, they’re all in that same category,” Rivers said. “You have to be able to play with emotion. I don’t think anyone lives life greatly without it, but then you have to be able to control it.”
It’s easier said than done when dealing with a headstrong point guard, frequent target of agitators Blake Griffin and loose canon Matt Barnes.
VIDEO: Chris Paul talks about Blake Griffin and the state of the team
“We’re getting better at it,” said Barnes, who’s technical foul total stands at five, surprisingly low considering he’s been known to get nailed on reputation alone. He does have three of the Clippers’ league-leading nine flagrant fouls.
“All I can say,” Barnes said, “is it’s a work in progress for us.”
Which is enough to have Rivers genuinely concerned. The Clips’ penchant for getting caught up in officiating or the opposition’s antics makes them lose focus and cost them exactly when it can’t — in the postseason.
Last season’s disappointing first-round loss to Memphis in six games, which happened under ex-coach Vinny Del Negro, saw L.A. blow a 2-0 lead and get smacked with 10 techs. Five came in the final, height-of-frustration Game 6. Still, the Clippers earned at least one tech in five of the games.
“We have the fourth-quarter tech rule,” Rivers said. “We don’t want any of those because you can’t make up that. We just have to make sure we stay focused on our task.”
The fourth-quarter rule doesn’t always stick. On March 26 at New Orleans, Barnes got hit with one with 4:14 to go in a tight game. The Pelicans converted the gift free throw and won the game, 98-96, a costly loss for L.A. considering the razor-thin margin in the standings.
Paul earned his 10th technical of the season with five minutes to go at Houston on March 29. James Harden made the extra free throw to cut L.A.’s lead to 102-96. The Clippers would go on to win, 118-107. Over the last seven games, they’ve been whistled for seven technicals. They’ve been tech-free in the last two games, the first time the Clippers have done that since March 22 and 24.
“One thing we always talk about is fourth-quarter techs; we can’t have those,” Paul said. “I don’t care what’s happening. We’ve got to start getting ready for the playoffs.”
The importance is heightened in this final week of the regular season. Griffin and Durant each have 14 technicals on the season, tied for second-most in the league behind Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins with 15. A 16th technical results in an automatic one-game suspension.
It’s in the playoffs, though, where one extra free throw can make the difference between survival and an early exit. Especially so if the Clippers and Golden State Warriors meet in the first round. The teams have developed a healthy dislike for one another and the Warriors will surely be eager to put their Pacific Division rival’s mettle to the ultimate test.
The teams split a heated season-series, 2-2. A combined nine technical fouls were called, five on the Clippers, three on Griffin. Two of Warriors center Andrew Bogut‘s six technicals came against the Clippers. In a wild Christmas Day game, first Draymond Green got to Griffin with an elbow to the throat that drew double technicals. Early in the fourth quarter, Bogut and Griffin tangled and both received technical fouls even though the sequence was instigated by Bogut. The game was tied, 78-78.
Because it was Griffin’s second technical, he was automatically ejected. The Warriors won the game, 105-103. The next day, the league reviewed the play and ruled that Griffin’s actions were not worthy of a technical and, thus, he should not have been ejected. It didn’t change the outcome of the game, and it won’t in the playoffs either.
Such are the perils the Clippers must avoid.
“I think we’re OK because we all understand the big picture, that’s win,” said Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, who has four technicals. “It’s OK to play on edge, it’s OK to play with that toughness, not just physically being tough, mentally being tough and weathering the storm. I think that’s good for us.”