VIDEO: Clippers outlast Rockets
HOUSTON — It was back at the start of training camp when Blake Griffin declared that Lob City was closed for business.
Since then the Clippers have struggled to find a new identity, something catchy for postcards and maybe to put on all those new banners hanging inside Staples Center. Of course, Paris has pretty much put a headlock on the City of Lights and even Cedar Bluff, Ala., already laid claim to the label that is most historically accurate for the NBA’s long-suffering franchise — Crappie Capital of the World.
“I don’t think anyone has an identity except teams that have been together,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “You pretty much know who Indiana is — they’re a big, physical team. Miami, you know who they are. Oklahoma and San Antonio. Other than that, I don’t know anyone else.”
Rivers would like to think the Clippers learned a little about who they can be with a win over the Rockets that was more a product of perseverance than sheer performance. After an opening few minutes that fed off J.J. Redick practically setting the nets on fire, the Clippers fell into a deeper funk than George Clinton behind a microphone and might have been on their way to packing an 0-3 record into their luggage after a swing through Orlando, Miami and Houston.
There were missed jumpers that bounced off the rims. There were layups that couldn’t find the bucket or were rejected into the stands by the Rockets’ Dwight Howard. More significant, there were shoulders slumped, heads hanging and eyes that were vacant.
It is one thing for the Clippers to roll happily along when they’re pouring in 137 points, as they did five nights earlier against the Rockets in L.A. But if they are going to make the step forward to being real contenders in the contentious Western Conference, it is the other games that will make the difference. The ugly ones, the games that require concentration and grit and the kind of trust in each other that is built, at least at the start, on faith.
“It’s a process,” said guard Jamal Crawford. “We’ve got half a new team, a whole new coaching staff. We’ve got to weather the storm and get better each day and keep building. I said it before the season. We’re not gonna be judged on what we do in the season. We’re gonna be judged on the playoffs. We got to go through the process and build toward that.”
The foundational construction is always done on the defensive end, which is how Rivers’ teams in Boston made their calling, and it’s what he’s now trying to get through a continent away.
“I kept telling them to hang in there,” Rivers said. “We started off so well and then it went bad and we went bad. We were all pouting and our body language was awful and I just kept telling them, ‘Hang around, hang around, hang around. We’ll find something for you defensively.’ ”
What the Clippers eventually found was a play here, a steal there that lit a spark that became a fire. After a Chandler Parsons layup gave Houston a 71-60 lead with 5:02 left in the third quarter, the Clippers went into a shutdown mode. They got stops on eight consecutive possessions by the Rockets and ripped off an 18-0 tear into the fourth quarter that let them fly home with a measure of dignity and a record (4-3) that had chinned itself back above the .500 mark.
“It’s a long game, man,” said point guard Chris Paul. “I watch more basketball than anybody. It reminds me of LeaguePass. I’m watching, flipping through channels and you think a game is over and later you see the scroll and you say, ‘Oh, it’s a two-point game, a three-point game.’ That’s how it goes sometimes and you to find a way to win it.
“We showed up to the fight late, which you can’t do. They were a little bit grittier, a little bit scrappier than us. Then we finally said enough is enough.”
It’s the grit and the scrappiness that has been missing from the Clippers over the past three seasons as they’ve made their climb from dregs to highlight darlings. It’s the part of their makeup that has led to consecutive flameouts in the playoffs, leading to the departure of former coach Vinny Del Negro and the arrival of Rivers and the search within the locker room and within themselves for a different way of competing.
“We’re still understanding the offense, learning to trust each other on defense,” Griffin said. “We haven’t hit our stride yet. But when guys are playing hard like we did in that second half, we can overcome mistakes and misses.”
It was far too early in a long season to call it must-win, but it is the necessary step up the ladder that the Clippers have to take to spur further progress and it came against a Rockets team that is just as, if not more, talented and equally as naive.
“They’re just like us,” Rivers said. “We’re both gonna be a lot better later. They need time to figure it out. We need time to figure it out. It’s early in the season. We know that. They know that. At the end of the year the Rockets are gonna be a helluva basketball team. At the end of the year I’m hoping we’re gonna be a helluva basketball team.”
Or at the very least not have to do a check of driver’s licenses to find an identity.