LOS ANGELES, CA-The Los Angeles Clippers are having the type of season that may be a surprise to some people. Well, a lot of people. It’s easy to see why. A year ago after trading away Blake Griffin, the Clippers finished the season 10th in the Western Conference. There was no big-time free agents that the team was able to gobble up during the summer.
So when they began the 2018-19 NBA season, the Clippers were probably the most faceless recognizable team in the league. The big names that once occupied space on the Clippers’ roster became a trivia question. That six-year consecutive playoff run suddenly became a distant memory for some.
The hoopla and hype surrounding Griffin and that Lob City era officially blew right through the Staples Center doors the moment the power forward was traded to the Detroit Pistons. Shock seemed like an understatement to the team’s willingness to part ways with one of the most productive players in the franchise history and one of the best at his position in the NBA.
At that time it seemed like a kiss of oblivion blew back in the face of the Clippers after that transaction. There was a feeling of here we go again. Sometimes when I was out and about making my way through the city, the echoes of the Clippers are being the Clippers again would sting my ears. This after one season of missing the playoffs. Fans can be fickle at times.
And when the Los Angeles Lakers went out and nabbed LeBron James in the offseason, that backseat feeling became a nightmare for Clippers fans. Once again, the Clippers would be playing little brother to the Lakers. But then a funny thing happened: they started to play the games. Once the ball began rolling out for the regular season, the Clippers have been anything but a little brother to anyone.
In fact, it is James and the Lakers who are now taking a seat as the city’s little brother as the Clippers have established themselves as one of the best team in the NBA. The Lakers, on the other hand, have faltered and will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
The Clippers are currently No. 6 in the Western Conference standings, and could wind up in the No. 4 slot or at the eighth position, depending on how the few games remaining in the regular season play themselves out. Whatever the case, the Clippers are going to be a tough opponent to deal with for whoever takes them on.
“We are just pushing, just winning,” said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers after the Clippers had defeated the Indiana Pacers, 115-109 at Staples Center on March 19. “We have to keep winning games. We don’t look at positioning. If we keep pushing, positioning will happen. At the very end, I guarantee you that one of you guys will tell us who we are playing. We will be ready for that. The other thing is continuity. We have to get the new guys integrated.”
The Clippers have arrived at this point due a couple of things.
One, the coaching of Doc Rivers and his staff has been exceptional all year long. How else can you make sense of a team losing Griffin, Chris Paul, JJ Redick, DeAndre Jordan, and Tobias Harris, and still be good enough to put together a strong playoff surge in the (Wild, Wild) Western Conference? It’s not rocket science.
Through a myriad of player transactions and trades in the past year, Rivers has executed his all-time coaching prowess as he shuffles his lineup night in and night without a “superstar” on his roster. And when it comes to the often used term “teamwork,” the Clippers have excelled at that mantra all season with a bunch of selfless guys who have bought into Rivers’ philosophy of ball movement and playing defense.
It was defense that propelled the Clippers to a 17-point fourth quarter lead against the Pacers. It was the case of being resilient that won the ballgame for Rivers and his ballclub. The Clippers had six players score in double-figures as they held off the pesky Pacers, which at one point climbed back to within four points of the Clippers in the final period.
“We are just playing well,” Rivers said after the win. “We are not playing great, which is good sign. We are playing well enough to win. We have played great in stretches during the game, but there is a better team in there. We know that, and we are going to bring it out.”
The Clippers are in the position they are in because they are playing the game the way it is meant to be played: on both ends of the court. The Clippers have been doing it with two rookies (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet) starting in the backcourt, a throwback sixth man (Lou Williams), the defensive tenacity of Patrick Beverly, the inside work of Montrezl Harrell, and the all-around play of Danilo Gallanari leading the way.
“We got a good group,” Williams said after the Clippers defeated the New York Knicks, 124-113, at Madison Square Garden on March 24. “Mentally we are a very mature team. The young guys that we have are mature beyond their ages. We are rolling and in a good rhythm right now. We got a good mix of guys.”
After the team’s victory against the Knicks, Harrell, who is averaging just over 16 points and six rebounds a game, said the goal is to focus on the task at hand.
“Keep playing the right way, keep growing as a team, keep getting better,” Harrell said. “We want to put ourselves in the best position we can to get into the playoffs. Taking one game at a time, hopefully get into the playoffs and make some noise. That’s what it’s about.”