- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- At some point this month, the Los Angeles Clippers will hit a critical crossroads where they will be fully healthy for the first time this season at around the same time the players and coaches finally reach a comfort level with each other.
The big question will be how good can the Clippers be and how far can they go after the All-Star break?
"We're hitting a little bit of a stride," Blake Griffin said. "We're more than halfway through the season, and hopefully everyone's getting to the point where we're healthy. This is the time, March and April, where you hit your stride. I don't think people really realized how much new stuff we had going on with the team. A brand-new coaching staff, seven new players, so it's going to take some time and it did take some time, but I think we're starting to turn the corner."
Griffin certainly has turned the corner this season and has helped keep the Clippers near the top of the Western Conference despite a rash of injuries that has robbed the team of its starting backcourt for much of the season.
Since Dec. 16, Griffin has scored at least 25 points 20 times, including 15 times in the past 17 games, and has led the Clippers to a 20-9 record, despite the team missing J.J. Redick for 16 of those 29 games and Chris Paul for 18 games.
With Paul's return to the team Sunday and Redick's return next week after the All-Star break, everyone finally will see what Griffin and the Clippers can do at full strength.
"We haven't been completely healthy; there at the beginning, J.J. was out for so long and Matt [Barnes] was out and then we lost CP and J.J. came back and then got hurt," Griffin said. "It's been a constant struggle with injuries but a lot of teams go through those things. I've said throughout the course of the season, as long as we're healthy come playoffs, I'm happy."
Even without Paul, the Clippers went 14-6, and they have managed to make it through missing Redick for 25 games and Barnes for 19 games. With all three back, the Clippers not only will have a stronger starting lineup, but they finally can showcase a second unit they were high on coming into the season before some of those players were thrust into starting roles.
Players such as Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison, Jared Dudley and Hedo Turkoglu, who was signed last month, can help the Clippers build and at least maintain leads -- something that has been a problem with a second unit that has underperformed because of the constant lineup changes.
"We haven't been healthy," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "We might have played 16, 20 games with our starting lineup the whole year. There's no way we've been healthy, but I do think even with that we're still close. I think we're at the point of understanding it but not at the point of doing it consistently on either end, but I just like where we're trending."
Rivers said this week the Clippers are close to becoming the team he wanted to see when they got together in San Diego in October for training camp. The lineups and roles and system he envisioned are slowly beginning to take shape as the team gets healthier and more comfortable.
"I have no idea what it is, but I know it when I see it," Rivers said. "We're growing. It's defense, it's offense and feeling where each other is at. You can feel it. You're almost upset the break is coming in some ways, but we need that, too. We're not there yet, but it's coming. I just like where we're headed."
Not only are the Clippers getting healthier, but the toughest part of their schedule is behind them. They played more road games than any other team in the league through the first half of the season, and that included two seven-game trips, which Rivers frequently says he can never recall going through as a player or coach.
"I'm really proud of the way we haven't really gotten down on ourselves because of injuries here and there," Griffin said. "I'm proud of the way guys have fought and have remained extremely professional. We have a lot of work to do, but the foundation we have laid is very good."
As good as that foundation is, the Clippers know simply having a healthy roster and understanding Rivers' system will equate to wins. There still will be a transition period and a learning curve that the Clippers cannot just fast-forward through.
"I would love to say it's going to be perfect and it’s going to be great, but you’re going to struggle and you’re going to have your ups and downs," Rivers said. "But I think once we're at full strength, we'll be hitting on all cylinders and really be playing the way we all envisioned."
When the Clippers return from the break, they will be fully healthy for the first time this season with only 27 games left in the regular season.
"I'm looking forward to us having our full lineup out there," Redick said. "It's been frustrating. I like where we're at. We've been through a lot. This is the first year our group's been together with Doc, and I think it's good we've been through a lot early on. It's tightened our bond and made us a better team. I'm looking forward to this stretch run and fine-tuning some things and getting everybody healthy and rolling."