ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Los Angeles Clippers haven't won anything yet.
They're not delusional about this simple fact. They'll be the first ones to tell you they haven't done a single thing of note since being proclaimed by many as championship favorites in the offseason.
Even their coach Doc Rivers, who actually has a ring to his name, is quick to point out the Clippers are a group of talented players, void of any championship hardware.
Yet despite this fact, the Clippers continue playing down to their competition this season and only rising to the occasion when the opponent merits it in their minds. It's a dangerous recipe for a team that's trying to mold itself into a group capable of winning something more than 50-plus games and a division title this season.
The Clippers lead the league in scoring with 119 points per game but also lead the league in points allowed with 112.5 per game. After the Clippers lost to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday 98-90, Rivers reiterated what he had already told his team in practice earlier in the week.
"Offense is always fool's gold," Rivers said. "You got to defend to win. The good part about tonight is that it was proof. When we started to get stops, we started scoring. It's difficult to run when you're taking the ball out of bounds every time."
The biggest indictment of the Clippers is a lack of effort when they're going up against a team projected to be in the lottery. It was the case on opening night against the Los Angeles Lakers when they fell behind by 17 and lost, and again against the Magic when they fell behind by 19 and lost again.
"We can't take anybody lightly," forward Blake Griffin said. "We can't come out and think we're going to take care of a team just by showing up. That's not how it works. We have to do a better job of getting up for the games that we're so-called not supposed to get up for. I felt like we learned our lesson against the Lakers in the season opener. We kind of just showed up. It makes you realize you can't relax and rely on offense, you can't take anyone lightly."
Before the season started, Rivers said there would be a learning curve with this team. He didn't expect to jump fast out of the gate with a new coaching staff and nearly half the roster revamped. He hoped to fast-forward the process by holding training camp in La Jolla, Calif., and had the team over to his Winter Park, Fla., home before Wednesday's game. But the loss to Orlando showed just how far the Clippers have to go before they can truly be considered championship contenders.
"I thought we were very casual in our approach tonight, and that's me," Rivers said. "I've always got to get them ready and I didn't."
When Rivers was asked what adjustments he made to help the Clippers overcome a 19-point deficit against Orlando to take a five-point lead in the fourth quarter, which they would eventually squander, he said nothing. The Clippers simply decided to play harder.
"Effort, that's it," Rivers said. "There's no adjustment. We didn't make one single adjustment at halftime. None. We just played harder. We played with better focus. We played as a group instead of individually trying to make up our defense."
It would be understandable for a group that has won championships to sleepwalk through the start of the season. It would also be understandable for a group of rookies who don't know any better to breeze through the first couple of months. But these Clippers are in the primes of their careers and not a single one of them has won a championship. Most of them have waited their entire careers to play on a team like this and for a coach like Rivers, and they're already approaching road games lackadaisically?
"We have to pick up our intensity and respect and know our opponents," guard Chris Paul said. "Those guys have been playing well and in the first half we were too comfortable. We have to play well every night. We understand that and we know that. In order to get a high seed as far as the playoffs go, you have to beat the teams below .500 and the teams above .500, so every game has to be a big game and we have to approach it like that. ... It's Game 5. Luckily we have 77 left."
The Clippers will look to play with more urgency Thursday night in Miami against the Heat, where it shouldn't be too hard to get motivated to play against the back-to-back defending NBA champions. Then again, all the motivation and urgency in the world isn't going to help unless the Clippers can finally learn to play some defense.
"We're not going to win games unless our defense gets better," Paul said. "We can’t rely on 100-something points every night. Our defense has to kick in at some point or else we're going to lose or we're going to be in dog fights every night."