- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES – When the Clippers opened training camp in San Diego almost five months ago, Doc Rivers began preaching the importance of “playoff practices.”
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.
“Since training camp, every practice we’ve talked about playoff preparation,” Paul said. “Like every practice is about being locked in and staying focused, and we’re getting closer and closer to that point.”
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.”