LOS ANGELES -- During the course of an NBA season, players and coaches develop certain go-to phrases and clichés to explain the team and the just-completed game.
It becomes so much a part of their lexicon that beat reporters quietly look at one another and smile when they are uttered again and again.
As good as the Los Angeles Clippers have been this season, two of coach Doc Rivers' go-to lines after a loss have been some variation of "we joined the game late" and "we didn't play with a purpose."
It's a perfectly reasonable explanation and probably accurate, but they don't really explain why the Clippers lost to the Indiana Pacers 105-100 on Sunday. On two occasions, the Clippers came back from 11-point and 14-point deficits to tie the score or take the lead, only to let Indiana take back control of the game.
"I thought in the second half we joined the game, and then it was a game," Rivers said. "I thought Indiana attacked us early and we didn't attack back, and then in the second half it was a good basketball game. I take out of that that we can play with anybody, but I'm not taking a moral victory. We lost the game."
Being able to play with anybody and being able to beat anybody are two different things, and right now the Clippers aren't at the point where they can beat anybody. After losing to the Miami Heat and Pacers and splitting two games with the Oklahoma City Thunder so far this season, the Clippers have proved they can play with the elite teams in the NBA, but beating them on a consistent basis might be another story.
So why do the Clippers show up to these games late or not play with a purpose, as Rivers has suggested?
"We're human," Rivers said. "Some games you come in to win. It's not like our guys came in and were like, 'Let's not win today.' [Indiana] came in with a purpose. This was their first game on the West Coast road trip, and you could see their seriousness and the beginning of the game was locked in and we were not. We tried to get into it."
There's no shame in losing to a 16-1 team, but when you're playing against the best team in the NBA at home and your excuse postgame is that you weren't locked in and you tried to get into it, that's not acceptable.
If you can't get up for a home game against the best team in the NBA, when exactly will you decide to get up for a game?
"We just got off to a slow start," Chris Paul said. "It happens. It doesn't matter what day it is. We didn't start running until late."
There will come a time when the Clippers will be justified in using the excuse of taking a game or a half off here and there, but that time isn't now. Not only do the Clippers have a young team, they're a young team that hasn't won anything yet. J.J. Redick is perhaps the most accomplished player on the team when it comes to postseason success, having advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009. The leaders of the team, Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, have never made it out of the second round.
As much as they want to get over that hump, that process begins in the regular season. It's something Rivers has been preaching to the Clippers since the start of training camp with "playoff practices" and talking about playoff situations.
Sunday was an opportunity to get a taste of playing against a playoff team and an opponent they could face in the NBA Finals down the line, but the Clippers apparently weren't in the mood for that.
"I didn't think we did a very good job in competing in the first half," Griffin said. "I thought we missed a few shots early, and we let that affect us and we didn't do a good job teamwise defensively."
Maybe the Clippers will figure it out. Maybe they'll realize these regular-season games against playoff teams aren't just games they can show up for in the second half but opportunities to measure themselves against the best teams in the NBA. Until then, we can look forward to more lackluster performances in these big games followed by equally uninspiring explanations for the way they played.