LOS ANGELES -- By any measure, the Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA through 14 games.
Following their 103-102 win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday afternoon, the Clippers rank just 27th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 105.0 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats.
The Kings, who were the 11th Clippers opponent to cross the 100-point threshold this season, exposed the same issues that have plagued Los Angeles all year: an inability to box out (the Kings had 11 offensive rebounds), defend the paint (Sacramento had 46 points in the paint) or force turnovers (the Kings only had 10).
With that being said, Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers has been clamoring for his team to get to the point defensively where it can get crucial stops and grind out close games. Against the Kings, the Clippers did just that, erasing a late-game deficit to sneak away with a win.
“Give [the Kings] credit -- they hung in there,” Rivers said. “I was proud of our guys at the end. We had to gather ourselves and get the lead back. That was nice.”
After playing about as perfectly as they had all season through the first 16 minutes of the game, the Clippers’ 20-point lead began to dwindle. Eventually, it was nonexistent.
The Kings’ offense methodically picked apart the Clippers from the second quarter on, preying on the mismatches and leaks in L.A.’s defensive scheme, and ultimately taking a five-point lead late in the fourth.
“It’s hard,” Rivers said of maintaining a double-digit lead. “I always think when you get a big lead, the only way you maintain the lead is with your defense. That’s the only way you maintain the lead. I think 90 percent of players in the league think, ‘If we can just keep scoring.’
“It’s a good lesson for us,” Rivers said.
Despite the Clippers’ second-half letdown, Chris Paul’s clutch play down the stretch -- six points over the final 1:29 -- gave them a one-point lead, 103-102, with 2 seconds remaining.
The challenge, then, was to stop the Kings -- who had called timeout and were inbounding on the left sideline -- from scoring and walking off with a rare road victory.
Instead of going with a generic defensive scheme to stop any potential option the Kings threw at them, Rivers tailored the Clippers’ final defensive possession to thwart what he believed the Kings would run -- a jumper for star big man DeMarcus Cousins.
“We predicted [the play] pretty well,” Rivers said of his bold move. “We thought the first option would be they were going to try to go from out of bounds to Cousins. That’s why we dropped [Jared] Dudley all the way back in his lap.
“Then right when they threw it up, we told him, ‘You have to take the side out of bounds.’ The side of the ball, I feel like defensively, you have to take that whole side out of the action. So the only way the ball can go is up top. And it ended up in Cousins’ hands and he had to take a tough shot.”
Cousins’ 16-foot shot fell short, air-balling, although it was unclear if DeAndre Jordan was able to block the attempt.
“I was trying to not give him contact and make it a tough shot for him,” Jordan said. “I don’t know if I touched it, but they didn’t score … but I’ll take the block.”
Cousins’ stat line (23 points, 19 rebounds and 7 assists) appeared as if he completely dominated the matchup with Jordan -- which he did, to an extent.
But Rivers saw Jordan’s defense in a different light. He was actually impressed and satisfied with Jordan’s individual defense on Sacramento’s surly center; it was all part of the game plan.
“It’s funny,” Rivers said. “Cousins had great numbers, but I thought D.J. overall did a fantastic job tonight defensively. We left him on an island a lot, with the thought that if he can get [Cousins] to shoot 50 percent or less, we can get to everybody else, we can take some of their 3s away, and then overall we’ll be a better defensive team.
“But overall, I think when he looks at it this [box score] and sees [the Kings] shot 42 percent, it’s because [D.J.] did this by himself.”
In what has seemingly become a trend, the Clippers (9-5) were unable to play two consistent halves of basketball, especially on the defensive end. Still, there has been clear progress in each game -- even if only for a few possessions or quarters.
L.A. is content with the victory given the circumstances, but the Clippers understand they can't always rely on Paul or Blake Griffin to bail them out. Last year’s team, Paul believes, would have probably blown out a lesser opponent like the Kings (4-8) if they had held a 20-point lead at one point.
“I don’t think there’s been a fourth quarter that we haven’t played yet this year,” Paul said. “We sort of got accustomed to that last year, every now and then we had a game where we blew it open. The bench came in, blew it out and we got to rest the fourth quarter. We’ve got to do that, especially the way our schedule is.
“With all these games, we’ve got to put away games early and not be in all these dogfights.”