Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul
LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul’s head was still down.
Almost 30 minutes after his turnover in the final seconds on Monday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies prevented him from attempting a game-winning shot, he still would not look up as he sat in front of his locker.
While players around him dressed, Paul couldn’t take his eyes of the tablet he was holding, which was replaying the final seconds of the game and his agonizing turnover.
As he watched the final possessions of the game, Glen Davis came over to offer some words of encouragement, as did assistant coach J.P. Clark, but all Paul could do was shake his head as he watched the video of Mike Conley stealing the ball from him and sealing the Grizzlies’ 90-87 win over the Clippers.
It was a tough loss, but no one took it harder than Paul, who refused to put the tablet down and take off the ice packs wrapped around his knees and leave the locker room as most of his teammates already had.
But it was Paul’s turnover, coming with 1.9 seconds left and the Clippers down by one, that continued to gnaw at Paul after he got dressed. Redick had just gotten the rebound after a Zach Randolph miss with 14.8 seconds left. But without a timeout, the plan was essentially to give the ball to Paul and let him do his thing on a night when he had 30 points and 10 assists.
“The last play, I just turned the ball over,” Paul said. “All I kept thinking about is if I was at home watching this game, I’d say this dummy didn’t even get a shot up. In that situation you have to at least give yourself a chance.”
With no timeouts, Paul admits it wasn’t an ideal end-of-game situation but shook his head at the fact he didn’t at least get a shot off.
“We gave ourselves a chance, we had the ball and you have to at least get a shot up and not a turnover, so that’s on me,” Paul said. “I’ll look at the game again tonight, but tomorrow I have to get past it and get ready for a tough Houston team and a tough road trip.”
This wasn’t the way the game was supposed to end for Paul. Against one of their biggest rivals and with Blake Griffin still sidelined for another couple of weeks, Paul put the Clippers on his back. He scored 19 points in the first half when no other players in the game had more than seven. He was all over the court, diving for loose balls and getting on players for not hustling back on defense.
“My coaches always talk to me about being aggressive,” Paul said. “I tried to have that mindset of staying downhill. They usually play back and that was what was open early.”
Doc Rivers, one of the best coaches in the league at drawing up a play out of timeout, said he didn’t think the Clippers played with offensive discipline the entire game but was particularly frustrated with the play in which Paul turned the ball over. Not because he wasn’t able to draw up a play or even because of the turnover, but because the lack of spacing on the floor ultimately helped lead to the turnover.
“There was just no spacing,” Rivers said. “It was a random play because we didn’t have a timeout. It was a fast break for the most part, but I thought our spacing was horrendous and I told our guys that after the game. They didn’t really force the turnover, but the fact that their guys were standing at the elbows I thought affected the way Chris had to attack.”
Paul continued to think about his turnover and the final seconds of the game long after it was over and after every player in the locker room was asked about. It was the kind of moment he has relishes being in, though he has recently had difficulty shining in. As he left Staples Center on Monday he said he would watch the game again and plan for a different result when the Clippers meet the Grizzlies in Memphis on Friday.
“You play the whole game to get in those situations,” Paul said. “You try to thrive in those situations and for that to happen is tough but you have to look at it, learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
"It is a true honor to be selected by the coaches to be in the All-Star Game," Paul said. "I am blessed to be able to represent the Clippers organization in New York with Blake."
Paul, who has started all 46 games for the Clippers this season, is averaging 17.5 points, 9.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. He is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 17.0 points, 9.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals this season.
Paul is one of only five players all time (Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Terry Porter and Rod Strickland) to have sustained these averages over the course of an entire season. Should he maintain these totals this season, he will join Johnson as one of only two players to average these totals or higher for multiple seasons.
PHOENIX -- One by one as each player on the Los Angeles Clippers got dressed and spoke Sunday night, it was clear that the results of their four-game winning streak were bigger than a change in the standings.
They represented a change in the team and a locker room that wasn't always as united as it could have been. Something had changed within the Clippers and it was starting to show on and off the court.
The same players who looked like a dozen disjointed pieces of a puzzle earlier in the season are playing together as one.
There's a difference between in-fighting and healthy, sometimes heated debates and the Clippers have had more of the latter during their current four-game winning streak than they've had at any other time this season.
"Our defense has been better because of our communication," Blake Griffin said. "The more we talk, the better we are. It's not just talk and saying, ‘I got your back.' It's directing people and people just listen, they don't second guess it. It's about trust. I don't think I've ever seen a good team that didn't do things like that. Sometimes people blow it out of proportion when two guys have a disagreement, but we see it as guys caring and having a lot of passion and we didn't have a lot of that on this team."
The Clippers' chemistry, especially on the bench, has improved following the acquisitions of Austin Rivers and Dahntay Jones, but there's more to it than simply new faces in the locker room. The Clippers have now won four straight, their second longest winning streak of the season, largely because they're following along with what Rivers has been telling them since the start of the season: good defense leads to good offense, and that's easier to do when everyone is on the same page.
"Since the Portland [win on Jan. 14], everyone is just into the game," Chris Paul said. "The key word we've been saying is 'spirit.' Everybody's being engaged and it's a good feeling."
It's hard to quantify a team's "spirit" but the Clippers look like a team having more fun now than they did earlier in the season. Winning obviously helps but going on the road and beating the Trail Blazers and Suns aren't exactly wins that could have been counted on from this group even a couple of weeks ago.
"I just think we enjoy each other more," Rivers said. "Our focus is better, and we believe we can win every game. The other thing, I think, is we're coming into games ready to play. We had that one stretch where we were just showing up. We won some and we didn't. I think now, if you're going to beat us, you're going to beat us. But you're going to have to play well."
While the Clippers haven't played consistently well this season they are tied for the fourth-best record in the West (30-14) and are just a game in a half back of the second-best record in the conference. They are also 8-4 against the top eight teams in the West as they embark on an eight-game road trip that includes stops in San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
"We've really been playing like a team," Rivers said. "They've played great. The whole team, they're buying in."
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin was voted as a starter in the NBA All-Star Game on Thursday for the fourth straight year and will play in the game for a fifth straight year.
There's nothing surprising about that.
What is surprising is that for the first time, Griffin might not have Chris Paul as his teammate at the game.
After the starters were announced on Thursday, TNT analysts Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith predicted their reserves for the West and none listed Paul. They were not alone, as several other pundits filling out their rosters had players such as James Harden, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook over Paul.
"Those [TNT] guys get paid pretty good money to give their opinions," Paul said. "That's probably not the first time they didn't [vote for me]. At the end of the day, all I can do is play."
With Kobe Bryant, who was named a starter, and Aldridge likely sidelined for the game, it would seem like a good bet that Paul will find his way on to the roster, but the fact that it is a question mark comes as a surprise to Griffin.
"I think he deserves [a spot on the All-Star team], and that's not just being biased," Griffin said. "I keep saying that a lot of guys deserve it. With the 12-man roster, a lot of guys don't get to play that should, but I know [Paul] would say the same thing. Our season isn't won or lost by All-Star ballots. It's an honor, and I think CP deserves it. He's been an All-Star for how many years? Sometimes, it just doesn't happen like that and it's unfortunate. We'll see. It's not up to us."
That decision will be up to the coaches in the West, led by the Golden State Warriors' Steve Kerr. While Clippers coach Doc Rivers doesn't put much stock into the game, he fully expects Paul to be in New York with Griffin next month.
"I'm not sitting in my office focusing on that, but I assume Chris is going to be on the All-Star team," Rivers said. "It would be a shock if he wasn't."
It's not as if Paul, who has played in all 43 games this season, has had a drop-off in production. He is averaging 17.6 points, 9.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Paul is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 17.5 points, 9.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. In fact, only five players (Paul, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Terry Porter and Rod Strickland) have done so over an entire season.
Paul also leads the NBA with a 4.59 assist-to-turnover ratio and is third all time with a 4.12 career assist-to-turnover ratio.
"I think, nationally, people just [take him for granted], it's Groundhog's Day," Rivers said. "He's like Duncan in that way. He just keeps doing it every night and people just don't notice it or pay attention to what he does every night. He's not that flashy. He's not dunking and doing everything, so people don't notice how good he is every night."
Not only is Paul the quarterback of one of the better offenses in the NBA, he also is counted on to be one of the team's best defenders.
"This is the one thing I will say on Chris' behalf for the All-Star Game: Him and Westbrook are the only point guards who guard the best guy every night," Rivers said. "Those guys do. A lot of the other guys don't, and that has always stood out with me with Chris."
“I’ve never bowled a 300,” Paul said. “That’s my goal. If you bowl a 300, you get a ring. If you win a championship you get a ring so it’s kind of ironic that I ain't got neither one of them.”
Paul may be ringless in bowling and basketball but he's already an owner. Paul purchased L.A.X., a professional bowling team in the Professional Bowlers Association, two years ago. Jerome Bettis, Terrell Owens and Kevin Hart are other celebrity owners in the league, which features eight teams of five bowlers.
“As a team owner, I’m in-season so I can’t go to the matches as much as possible,” Paul said Thursday at the Chris Paul PBA Celebrity Invitational Bowling Tournament in Torrance, Calif. “But T.O. goes and sees his team bowl. We’re putting the team together and it's fun. Because I’m out here in L.A. I named them the L.A.X. I follow them and see how they doing. I watch these guys all the time when they’re bowling all season long.”
Paul says he watches the PBA regularly and will watch Sunday’s PBA World Championship on ESPN after he’s done playing the Miami Heat Sunday afternoon.
“This is my other passion,” Paul said. “Some guys have other hobbies but I’ve been bowling since senior year of high school. That Christmas my mom and dad got me a bowling ball that looked like an ABA basketball -- it was red, white and blue. They got my brother a bowling ball that looked like a regular basketball. I just love bowling. My family bowls all summer long.”
Paul hosts the annual Chris Paul PBA Celebrity Invitational charity bowling event, which benefits his CP3 Foundation. This year’s event will be televised, on ESPN, on Super Bowl Sunday.
“My sophomore year in college I got really serious about bowling,” Paul said. “I probably have 20 bowling balls at home. I have this one bowling ball that’s like my baby. I can make that ball dance. I don’t have it with me. It’s in North Carolina. I should have brought it with me but when I have that ball I feel that you can’t touch me. It’s funny, when I have that ball I feel like I’m going to strike every time.”
The Atlanta Hawks beat the Los Angeles Clippers 107-104 on Monday night to win their fifth straight -- eighth straight at home -- and 14th of their past 15 games.
The Clippers, meanwhile, completed a brutal stretch in which they played four games in five nights in four different time zones, not to mention eight games in 11 days. The Clippers lost all five of their road games and went 3-5 during the eight-game stretch.
The good news for the Clippers: They don’t have to hop on a plane for a road game until Jan. 14. The bad news? They return home to play the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day and the Toronto Raptors two days later, the top teams in the West and East with a combined record of 45-10.
Surprise of the night: After trailing by 10 points in the second quarter, it would have been understandable for the Clippers to fold and start thinking about their flight home. Instead, they went on a 17-0 run and took a 13-point lead in the third quarter but were not able to hold on in the fourth quarter.
Problem of the night: Doc Rivers always talks about wanting to develop consistency with the second unit, but that’s not possible as long as they are solely dependent on Jamal Crawford. They have a good night when Crawford is on and struggle when he is off. On Tuesday, Crawford struggled, going 5-for-19 from the field while scoring 18 points. The rest of the Clippers' bench was just 2-of-10 from the field.
Stat of the night: The Clippers have now given up at least 100 points in five straight games and nine of their past 11 games. Not surprisingly, the Clippers are are 3-5 in their past eight games.
Players of the night: Blake Griffin had 21 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, falling just two rebounds shy of a triple-double. Chris Paul had 19 points, seven assists, six rebounds and five steals while DeAndre Jordan had 15 points and 22 rebounds.
SAN ANTONIO -- Doc Rivers doesn't believe in litmus tests.
Not this early in the season and, to be honest, not at any point during the regular season.
“I said it all last year, you don’t measure yourself during the regular season,” Rivers said. “You don’t know what a team’s going through. You don’t know if they’re going through a tough stretch.
"They could have injuries or they could be in what we’re in [playing four games in five nights]. How can we judge when we are playing this many games?”
It’s an understandable stance to take fewer than 30 games into the season, and Rivers is probably right. After all, the Clippers won 17 games in a row two years ago and were bounced in the first round despite having home-court advantage. They've won back to back Pacific Division titles and have won at least 56 games the past two seasons and still haven’t been past the second round.
The Clippers have learned that a great regular season doesn't necessarily equate to a great postseason, but they have yet to do anything to lead anyone to believe that they will be any better at the end of this season than they have been the past three seasons. They have failed seemingly every big test they have faced this season on the road (outside of beating an injury-riddled Rockets team last month) and have looked lost late in games away from home.
After Monday’s 125-118 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers have now lost to the Spurs twice this season, in addition to losing to Golden State and Memphis in games in which they could have tested themselves against the elite teams in the West.
The Clippers’ current test, as they will remind you, is less about the teams they are playing than their recent schedule, which has them playing in every time zone over five days.
“I don’t know if this is the test I needed,” Rivers said. “You don’t play four games in five nights in four different time zones in the playoffs. You just don’t. Teams still go through it, and you don’t want to lose them all, but it could happen. That’s how hard these teams are. You just want to get through it. I’m more concerned about getting through it; that’s the test I’m more concerned about. Everyone goes through it. Some get through it better than others.”
Those other teams usually find a way to get through tough times and tough stretches in the playoffs, even if the circumstances might be different. Yes, the Clippers have played seven games in 11 days. It’s not easy, but they’re better than the 3-4 record they have posted in those games and they need to be better than the 0-4 record they have posted in the past four road games if they hope to do anything of substance this season.
The biggest issues for the Clippers have been on the defensive end. On Monday night, the Spurs had a season high in points (125), assists (37) and points in the first half (72). Boris Diaw also enjoyed a season-high 23 points off the bench. The Clippers have given up at least 100 points in four straight games and in eight of their past 10 games. That’s not a great trend for a team that has been preaching about wanting to be known as a defensive team rather than a highlight-reel, lob-dunking team.
“We have to be better,” DeAndre Jordan said. “It starts defensively. I felt like as a group, especially with our starting unit, our defense wasn't as good as it could have been, and I feel that’s what made us lose the game ... Everybody’s schedule is crazy in the NBA, so that can’t be an excuse. Everybody has guys that are banged up. With a team like this, the champs from last year, you know we’re going to learn a lot of things from these guys. There are some things that we need to correct and tighten up, but it’s still early in the season. We’ll be OK.”
It’s one thing when Gregg Popovich sits players such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during the season and is confident going into the playoffs regardless of the team's seeding.
The Spurs have won five championships and played in six NBA Finals over the past 15 years. None of the Clippers’ players aside from Glen Davis have ever won a championship. There might come a time when they can look past losses to San Antonio, Memphis and Golden State and say things will be better in the playoffs, but it’s not now.
Beating these teams consistently and getting a top seed still matters and will matter more than they’re letting on.
“Games like these are good tests,” Blake Griffin said. “If you don’t show what you've been studying and show what you've been working on and execute the things you've been talking about, it doesn't do much for you. We really have to be better.”
For a team with championship aspirations that is currently the sixth seed in the West despite not having to deal with any injuries to their starters, the Clippers remain quietly confident.
“I want to be healthy,” Rivers said. “I want to win some of them, but if we get out of it healthy, we did get something.”
While health would be a nice holiday gift, if the Clippers can find a way to beat the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday and get back home -- where they will play their next nine games -- maybe they can start to turn their season around instead of simply trying to survive it.
“They’re all winnable,” Griffin said. “I don’t know if I take the mindset of just ‘survive.’ I’d rather come in and just win them all, but obviously we haven’t done that; but we still have a chance to go .500 during this stretch, and that’s important.”
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers once again played a subpar team, squandered a double-digit lead and had to hold on for a close victory, beating the Utah Jazz 107-101 on Monday. Four games into the season, the Clippers are 3-1, which is a solid record for a stretch of four games in five nights, but they have looked far from solid doing so. Their first true test of the season will come when they hit the road on Wednesday to play the Golden State Warriors.
Milestone of the night: Jamal Crawford scored 19 points and surpassed 15,000 for his career. Crawford is one of 21 active players to have reached the mark and one of 137 all-time.
Surprise of the night: Reggie Bullock, who had not played through the first three games of the season, came off the bench and scored 12 points, hitting 4-of-6 3-point attempts. If Bullock can knock down open shots consistently he has a chance to not only get in the regular rotation but perhaps even start if the Clippers choose to bring Matt Barnes off the bench, as they have talked about doing since training camp.
Stat of the night: For the first time this season, the Clippers attempted fewer than 30 3-pointers and actually hit a decent percentage from downtown. The Clippers hit 10 of 23 3-point tries and also shot 50 percent from the field. The Clippers, however, did get outrebounded for the fourth straight game to start the season.
Player of the game: Chris Paul had 13 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds to notch his first triple-double as a Clipper. It was Paul’s 12th regular-season triple-double and the 14th of his career.
Paul became only the seventh player in NBA history to reach 6,000 assists before the end of his ninth season, joining Jason Kidd, John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Norm Nixon and Oscar Robertson. Paul, Johnson, Stockton and Thomas are the only players in the group to hit the milestone before their 29th birthday.
"He's somebody that I watched and I admired," said Paul, who spoke to Thomas during a timeout in the first quarter. "Isiah is one of the greatest and one of the best to ever play the game. I think that fierceness that he played with and that edge. ...I'm not as quick or fast as he ever was or as crafty. I always have this burnt image in my head of Isiah Thomas, he was in a double team and he kept doing these crossovers. He's unreal."
It's not the first time Paul has been asked about Thomas. He has been compared to the Pistons' Hall of Fame point guard for years. They have similar builds, are fiercely competitive and have a knack for finding an open teammate or a creating their own shot.
There is, however, one big difference between the two, and it's the biggest reason Paul simply shrugs when asked about reaching these regular-season statistical milestones.
"It's an honor and a privilege, but Zeke won championships though," Paul said. "I'll never forget the game in the [1988 NBA Finals] where his ankle was hurt and he was running circles around everyone."
Thomas played in three straight NBA Finals and won back-to-back titles with the Pistons. Paul has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs and isn't ashamed to admit that when asked to talk about himself in the same breathe as the likes of Thomas, Johnson and Robertson.
"I didn't even know I had 6,000 assists," Paul said. "I'm so focused on winning games and not really the individual achievements."
DENVER -- Blake Griffin turned 25 on Sunday.
This might come as a surprise to those who have talked about Griffin’s unfulfilled potential and shrinking ceiling for the past couple years. You know, when he was all of 24 and 23 years old.
After his spectacular rookie year three seasons ago, it was easy to expect Griffin to suddenly become one of the best players in the league around the same time he was legally able to drink.
Everything seemed to come easy to him.
The dunks looked like second nature. The comedic timing on his countless commercials was so natural. It was normal to expect a midrange jumper and free throws to come just as seamlessly.
We wanted so much so soon from him. And why not? He had made the All-Star team, dunked over a car, won the slam dunk contest and rookie of the year honors and averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in his first season. A sophomore slump, from a statistical standpoint, was bound to happen.
It’s not that Griffin’s game regressed. It just that it didn’t progress as rapidly as some expected.
The box scores and stat lines were never really going to do Griffin justice. The numbers he put up his first season were on a 32-50 team where he was the only real option. The stats and dunks were great, but what were they for? Over the next two seasons, the Clippers won 65 percent of their games and made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in two decades with the addition of players like Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford and the maturation of DeAndre Jordan. Griffin was putting up All-Star numbers, but they took a slight dip across the board over the two seasons following his rookie year.
Griffin’s goal coming into this season was to change that, and he has responded with a career season that has him being talked about as an MVP candidate. He is currently averaging a career-high 24.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and is shooting 69.9 percent from the free throw line. He earned his first player of the month award last month after being one of only two players to average at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in February.
“I wanted to improve across the board to be honest,” Griffin said. “I concentrated on my shot and really put a lot of work in there. Every year I try to make improvements, not just in one area but do it across the board, and one thing is leadership. Every year I want to take another step because with every year, you obviously get more experience and younger guys are coming in and you look to take on that role.”
There’s no real way to practice being a leader. You just have to do it, and Griffin was essentially forced into that role when Paul was sidelined for 20 games this season and Griffin led the team to a 14-6 record and in the process catapulted himself into the MVP race by showing that he was capable of being the team’s leader and go-to guy. Not only did that time allow Griffin to mature but it also changed the way Paul and Clippers coach Doc Rivers viewed Griffin and the direction of the team.
“I think clearly he’s running the floor better and he’s handling the ball more,” Rivers said. “I just think the overall confidence in his game has grown and his shot and his ability to face the basket instead of always trying to play physical with the bigs. I think that’s where he’s improved the most and he’s still going to keep getting better. I don’t think he’s where he wants to be yet at all.”
Paul knew Griffin was athletic and gifted around the basket but he realized Griffin was also becoming a gifted playmaker with the ball in the open court. His ability to run the offense and find the open man on fast breaks was a new dimension to the offense Paul and Rivers realized they had to use even when Paul returned to the lineup.
“When I was out Doc talked to me about kicking the ball ahead and it’s been fun,” Paul said. “Kicking the ball ahead to Blake and letting Blake push it and make plays. It’s not always about the assist. Doc said something about the hockey assist -- the pass that leads to the next pass and that’s when I think when our team is at its best.”
Paul said his relationship with Griffin grew during his time away from the court. He realized how much he needed him to succeed and vice versa. This wasn’t Paul’s team or Griffin’s team anymore. It had to be their team if they wanted to do anything worthwhile in the postseason.
“I think it takes some pressure off of Chris,” Rivers said. “You don’t want Chris having the ball on every possession all game. I don’t know how you can physically go through a game, a year and definitely through the playoffs like that. I just think it’s really important that there’s more than one facilitator on your team.”
Griffin isn’t surprised that his maturation into one of the best players in the league didn’t come as quickly as he would like. He remembers working with shooting coach Bob Thate two summers ago, but admits he only got about three weeks of work in after the Clippers’ playoff run took them into May and he was injured during Team USA training camp in Las Vegas soon after. Last summer he was able to completely devote himself to improving his game after the Clippers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. It was perhaps the only silver lining to an embarrassing early exit that saw the Clippers lose four straight games to Memphis after taking a 2-0 series lead.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, that’s what I’ve been hearing since Day 1 even though I didn’t want to believe it,” Griffin said. “Last summer was the first full summer I was really able to work from the beginning of summer to the end of summer and really put the time in. It’s a lot more mental than I used to think it was. Really locking in every single shot and really focusing in on things that [Thate] wants me to focus on. Creating those habits is big. Even now when I come out to shoot pregame, he’s on me every single time I pick up the ball. I constantly hear him in my ear.”
Before the Clippers won their league-high 11th straight game Sunday and Griffin scored 21 points, his franchise-best 26th straight game of at least 20 points, he was given a birthday cake and serenaded by rookie forward Reggie Bullock, who was celebrating his birthday as well. Afterward, even Paul was surprised by how young Griffin is.
“It’s crazy. I asked him how old he was turning, and he said 25, and I felt that was so long ago,” said Paul, who is 28. “Blake is so mature -- we’ve been together now three years, sometimes I think we’re the same age. We always say the sky’s the limit for him, but it really is. He’s unbelievable. He’s so durable and so athletic and loves the game. He’s unreal.”
Rivers smiled when he was asked if there was a ceiling to Griffin’s game after watching his growth over the past six months this season.
“I don’t know if there is, and I don’t want to be the guy to tell him that there is,” Rivers said. “If you are always in pursuit of getting better, you’re going to find yourself at some point. He’s too young to be even thinking about that.”
He took off his jersey, grabbed a basketball and walked back to the court with his four-year old son, Chris II, assistant coach Dave Severns and a ball boy. As Staples Center was being cleaned, Paul shot for over 20 minutes after the game from every corner of the court. Severns would direct Paul where to go, the ball boy would grab his rebounds and pass it to Paul's son who quickly passed it to his dad. The postgame routine took so long that Paul's wife, Jada, left early as did many media members waiting to talk to Paul in the postgame media room.
Chris Paul still working on his shot after the game. pic.twitter.com/q28D9FxiH9— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) March 13, 2014
As he walked into the room over an hour after the game had ended, Paul apologized as he held his yawning son's hand.
"I just knew y'all were gone," Paul said. "I'm so sorry."
Paul had 16 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and three steals but cringed as he looked down at the box score again and saw that he was 5-for-15 from the field. That simply wasn't good enough, even after the Clippers defeated the Warriors, 111-98, to take a five-game lead atop the division with 16 games left in the season.
"I had to practice," Paul said. "During the game, you wouldn't think, but I say it all the time, I struggle with confidence and things like that. I just didn't feel like I couldn't throw it in the ocean, so I wanted to go shoot now."
It was the first time Paul has shot postgame since he has been in Los Angeles and the first time anyone can remember him doing that since 2008 when Paul was the runner-up for the MVP award and his New Orleans Hornets fell one win shy of the Western Conference finals.
Paul was 22 at the time and in his third season in the league, and he thought that every season would be like that. He'd be in a neck-and-neck race for the MVP and playing into June. The truth is, Paul has never come as close to an MVP or a title as he did that season.
Six years later, Paul is 28, a father of two, and realizes that seasons like this can't be taken for granted. Paul is playing alongside Blake Griffin, who has vaulted himself into the MVP race, for a championship coach in Doc Rivers, and has a chance to make it past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his career.
"I don't know, it's just different this year," Paul said. "We have a special team and a special opportunity that doesn't come around very often and I have to do my part."
Rivers smiled as he sat in the interview room and heard Paul was back on the court, practicing his shot well after the game was over.
"He's pissed that he missed shots," Rivers said. "I like that. Chris is a warrior and he wants to get it right."
Paul struggled with his shot for much of Wednesday night's game. In fact, he was 2-for-11 in the closing seconds of the third quarter before he hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Clippers an 84-79 lead going into the fourth quarter.
"It's funny because I told Blake we were going to run the last play," Paul said. "There was 40 seconds left and Doc said, 'I'm going to get you out so you can get some rest. This might be your only rest.' But I said, 'No coach, leave me in. I need to make a shot.' So I told Blake, 'I'm going to you on the post, they're leaving me and I'm going to make one.' Blake trusted me enough and luckily the shot went in."
Griffin wasn't surprised to hear Paul was back on the court shooting long after the game as he changed and got ready to leave the arena just as Paul returned back to the locker room from his impromptu postgame practice.
"C.P. is a leader doing something like that," Griffin said. "He puts a lot on himself and after a game where he hit big shots for him to go do that shows you how hungry he is and that's the way our whole team is. A win like this isn't a time for us to be complacent. We feel we can be much better than we are right now."
It would happen almost daily. Griffin would get manhandled, get frustrated, lose his cool, and eventually lose the game he was playing.
Griffin has seen the tactic used against him more times than he cares to remember this season. It's not entirely his opponents' fault. Griffin doesn't have a first or second gear. He's constantly stuck in fourth gear. Most of us can handle someone wired like that only in small doses. And that's just in social settings. Put that kind of personality on a basketball court, where you are constantly pushing and shoving each other below the basket for four quarters, and tensions are bound to boil over at some point.
That was the case Monday night when Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker was jostling with Griffin in the paint and the two players ended up on the ground, with Griffin on top of Tucker and Tucker trying to free himself by forearming Griffin in the face.
Tucker was ejected from the game and suspended one game. Griffin, as is usually the case, turned the other cheek, finished the game with 37 points on 14-of-16 shooting, and the Clippers beat the Suns.
"I just assess the play as it happens," Griffin said. "That's not to say I wasn't going to [fight back], but in the moment I don't want to put my team in a bad situation. I don't want to put myself in a bad situation. You have to weigh the pros and cons at that point. I don't know what we were up by, but I know we were up by double digits, and just to do something stupid, to get kicked out, to get suspended, doesn't help. We already have injuries; we already have guys who are banged-up. We don't need that."
Wednesday's game against the Golden State Warriors likely will be another time when Griffin's patience will be tested. No team gets under Griffin's and the Clippers' skin more than the Warriors. Griffin was ejected for the second time in his career on Christmas Day when he got into separate altercations with the Warriors' Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut.
"Blake gets hit as much as anyone in the league," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "We have all seen it. It gets old. It really does. I think he's doing the right thing. I really do. He's doing the right thing. He puts his arms up, because if he reacts like some people say he should, he gets thrown out, gets suspended, and it hurts the team. I know it's very difficult for him, but he's doing the right thing for the team."
Griffin's ability to restrain himself and not swing back hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates, who watch firsthand the number of hard fouls and cheap shots he takes on a nightly basis without much of a response. The Clippers are just three games away from the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and know closing that gap would be impossible if Griffin did something to get himself suspended for a couple of games.
"I told Blake during that altercation that it's crazy being his teammate and seeing every night the different fouls and the different things that he takes," Paul said. "He sacrifices so much for us. He could have easily punched back and got to fighting, but he didn't. I don't know how he does it, but that's pretty selfless of him -- because he could do that, and now he's suspended for a few games and that hurts our team. It's huge. He's stronger than me."
There was a time when it worked to play Griffin physically and pepper him with occasional cheap shots. He would get frustrated, lose his focus and miss his free throws. Now, he smiles when players approach playing him the same way they did two years ago. Not only is he averaging a career-high 24.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, but he's also hitting 70 percent of his free throws. He no longer tries to avoid contact in the paint, he welcomes it.
"It's crazy what he goes through every single night," Darren Collison said. "He just keeps getting better and better regardless of who's trying to play physical with him. To me, right now it doesn't work. There's been numerous times he's been in some type of scuffle, and he continues to get better and better each game and throughout the game, as well. Blake's really showing maturity, too, by not retaliating. He's taking a lot of hits, but that's what the playoffs are going to be about. We're ready for it, he's ready for it, and we're going to continue to play through it."
The Clippers' first season in Los Angeles came in 1984-85. From that point through 2010-11, which was the season prior to acquiring Paul, they posted a .349 win percentage -- worst in the NBA during that span. During that same timeframe, the Lakers had a .659 win percentage -- best in the NBA.
The Clippers are 6-3 in head-to-head games against the Lakers since acquiring Paul (won 5 of the last 6). From 1984-85 through 2010-11 (season before CP3 arrived), the Clippers were just 28-95 against the Lakers (.228 win pct).
Since the Clippers traded for Paul prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, the Clippers have posted a .657 win percentage, 5th best in the NBA. The Lakers, meanwhile, have gone just 107-102 -- the 14th best record in the league.
Paul is averaging 20.5 points and 11.9 assists per game in 28 career games against the Lakers. Paul and Isiah Thomas are the only players in NBA history with career averages of at least 20 points and 10 assists against the Lakers (min. 5 GP).
While the Clippers have championship aspirations this season, the Lakers will be looking for a quick rebuild through a high draft pick and upcoming salary cap flexibility. But it’s worth noting, Kobe Bryant’s last playoff game came on May 21, 2012 (missed last postseason due to an injury). If the Lakers rebound and make the playoffs next season, it will be almost 3 full years since he played a postseason game.
It seemed like an odd thing to be talking about in October, before the Clippers had even played a preseason game, but in Rivers’ mind there was no need to hold off talking about the purpose of going through an 82-game regular season.
“That’s what you’re preparing for,” the Clippers coach said of the postseason. “The whole season you’re preparing for that.”
Heading into Tuesday’s meeting with the Phoenix Suns, the Clippers have just 21 games left in the regular season, meaning that the importance and meaning of the playoffs have changed as they look at the final stretch.
“Every day on the board in our locker room, it says practice at 11 o’clock, 10:30 shooting and individual work and playoff preparation at 11,” Blake Griffin said. “That’s kind of how we’ve treated this entire season. Every day we’re preparing ourselves for the playoffs.”
Chris Paul referenced the board in the locker room as well, and said “playoff preparation” has become as routine as shooting drills for the Clippers since this team first got together.
Rivers’ “playoff practices” focus on situations late in games, the kind that decide contests not only in the regular season but also in the playoffs. It’s about understanding the various options on a particular play, and staying true to the system and team principles regardless of the score.
“It’s really about our mindset,” Griffin said. “It’s something we always talk about. We put ourselves in situations, like down four with 50 seconds left, just a scenario where we’re never out of the game. To keep playing and not worrying about calls and things we can’t control.”
One of the things Rivers has continued to stress to the Clippers during the season is that you can’t start to prepare for the playoffs when the postseason finally begins -- by that time, it’s too late. It needs to be a slow build during the season, with every game and every practice working toward the eventual goal.
“You have to prepare yourself for what you’re trying to get to,” Rivers said. “That doesn’t mean we have [playoff practices] every practice, but you have to have that mentality every practice because that’s what you’re preparing yourself for. The other ones are small battles during the season, but the war starts in the playoffs, and you have to prepare yourself for it.”
Practices have certainly taken on a different feel for the Clippers this season, mainly because they don’t practice as much as they used to. As Rivers said earlier this season, “I’m taking fresh legs over brains every single time." He rarely practices the day after a game, and will usually have only a light practice the day before a game. Everything is geared toward keeping the Clippers fresh for -- you guessed it -- the playoffs.
“That’s a feel, and I’m probably wrong half the time,” Rivers said. “You have practices where you think after the practice, ‘Man, we had a great practice,’ and the next day your guys look dead on the floor. Now I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Man, that wasn’t such a great practice after all.’ I don’t think anyone will ever get that right. You’re walking a tightrope the entire year on when to go, when to go less and when to not go at all.”
It’s all part of Rivers’ plan to make the Clippers ready for the playoffs, but he will be the first to tell you he doesn’t know how it will all work out. You can prepare for the playoffs and every situation the postseason presents for five months, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be ready.
“We talk about it,” Rivers said. “And we’re going to keep working on it, but you still have to go through this process of the regular season and getting better. It’s part of the whole process.”
The Clippers know that the final six-plus weeks of the regular season aren’t just about playoff positioning and home-court advantage, but also a dress rehearsal for what they will have to do in the postseason to achieve their goals.
“We’ve been in the playoffs two years in a row and didn’t like the outcome,” Paul said. “We understand what we’re playing for. Everything is about building for the playoffs.”
The delay allowed enough time for the Clippers to unload Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens off the plan and off the roster and about a week later, their spots on the team and on the plane have been taken by Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Danny Granger.
There wasn’t much fanfare involved when the Clippers traded Jamison to the Atlanta Hawks for the draft rights to Cenk Akyol or Mullens to the Philadelphia 76ers for a conditional second round draft pick but those deals represented so much more.
In essence, the Clippers traded Jamison and Mullen for Davis and Granger without taking on any added salary. If grading the trade deadline were extended eight days, the Clippers would be big winners.
They had come close to trading Matt Barnes and Darren Collison to the New York Knicks for Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton at the deadline but pulled back when Shumpert suffered a sprained MCL just before the deadline. Shumpert is out indefinitely. Days later, Felton was charged with two counts of criminal weapon possession in New York.
The Clippers haven’t always been blessed with good fortune around trades, but things have broken their way of late. They were, of course, the beneficiary of Chris Paul's vetoed trade to the Lakers in 2011, and also have benefited from the league disallowing a trade of DeAndre Jordan to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett as a side deal to acquiring Doc Rivers as their head coach.
While Garnett, 37, is averaging a career-worst 6.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in 21 minutes per night, Jordan, 25, is having a career year, leading the league in field goal percentage (.669) and rebounds (14.0), is fourth in blocks (2.43) and is averaging a career-best 10.2 points per game.
Jamison and Mullens were nonfactors when they were traded but the Clippers are hoping that Davis and Granger can fill two major holes on this team.
The biggest weakness for the Clippers heading into the deadline was depth in the frontcourt. The combination of Mullens, Jamison and Ryan Hollins averaged a combined 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in 25.9 minutes per game. By contrast, Davis alone averaged 12.1 points, 6.3 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game with Orlando.
Davis was also shooting 45.3 percent from the field and is a solid mid-range option, which was non-existent from the frontcourt players on the bench before. He also gives the Clippers a player with championship experience (he’s the only player on the roster with a ring) and someone who thrives under pressure (he averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in the playoffs two years ago).
The Clippers were also hoping to upgrade at their small forward position and did just that with Granger, who is an upgrade offensively and defensively to Barnes and Jared Dudley and could actually become the starter this season.
Granger has been in just 34 games since 2011-2012 after knee surgery but says he is healthy this season and is averaging 8.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 29 games so far. The Clippers don’t necessarily need him to be the All-Star he was in 2009 when he was averaging 25.8 points per game. They just need him to help spread the floor by hitting the long ball when he’s open (he is a career 38.2 percent shooter from the arc) and be a pest defensively. His signing also comes at an opportune time with Jamal Crawford sidelined a couple of games with a strained left calf and J.J. Redick sidelined indefinitely with a bulging disk in his lower back.
The addition of Granger and Davis might not vault the Clippers into championship favorite status but both players will certainly be a bigger factor down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs than Mullens or Jamison were. The Clippers might still be one piece away from being a championship team but they’re closer one week after the trade deadline than they were before.