LOS ANGELES -- For the better part of three seasons, the Los Angeles Clippers have talked about wanting to be a defensive team.
In their ideal word, “Lob City” would one day morph into something more reminiscent of the “Bad Boys.” In fact, when ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary on those Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s aired last month, every Clippers player watched it and talked about it the next day at practice.
If they were ever going to realize their dreams of becoming a championship team, they would have to buy in defensively like that Pistons team did. They would have to contest every shot and make life miserable for their opponents.
It’s a solid goal, but it remains just that, and nothing more, for the Clippers.
As much as the Clippers want to be known as a defensive team, it’s a title they’ll never fully attain until it becomes part of their DNA, instead of a tired pregame and postgame talking point. Only then will the Clippers also be able to attain their larger goal of being a championship team.
Friday’s 118-112 Game 3 home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder showed how far the Clippers have to go to have that defensive presence and to be the team coach Doc Rivers told them they had to be during training camp and every practice since.
It wasn’t just that the Thunder scored 118 points. It was how they scored those points. They shot 55.7 percent from the field and scored a postseason-high 52 points in the paint, outscoring the Clippers in the paint for the second straight game.
“Defensively, if somebody is scoring 118 points, we obviously have to play defense better and I have to coach defense better,” Rivers said. “They shot above 50 percent. We didn't. I thought that was the difference in the game. But they got everything. They got 3s, layups, key second shots. Down the stretch, they made every big play. Every shot they needed went in.
“We had shots, too, and they didn't go in. I just thought we put way too much pressure on our offense because our defense wasn't working.”
Even when the Clippers’ defense broke down during the season and early in the playoffs, they usually found a way to rally late and get key stops down the stretch. It happened during Game 7 of the first-round series against the Golden State Warriors, when they came back from 13 points down.
Rallying from defensive letdowns and counting on late stops is like a safety blanket. It’s a strategy that can work during the season and in the first round of the playoffs but will often lead to loss when going up against teams like the Thunder.
“We've been a team regardless of how the first three-quarters went or the first part of the fourth quarter, we relied on stops down the stretch,” Chris Paul said. “Tonight we didn't do that. We obviously scored enough points to win. [Russell Westbrook] hit a big 3 when they were up one. [Kevin Durant] hit one on the wing. We're used to getting stops in those situations, and we didn't tonight.”
Rivers has said the Clippers can win when Durant and Westbrook have big nights. They’re almost always going to have big nights, as was the case Friday when they combined for 59 points, 19 assists and 16 rebounds.
“The thing that’s happened the last two games is they’ve had different guys step up,” J.J. Redick said. “Tonight, Reggie Jackson and Serge played well offensively. We know Durant and Westbrook are going to get their points. We’d like to limit the other guys as much as possible.”
Making those defensive stops can be hard when players are in the wrong place and trying to coach one another and point out mistakes as the game is happening. Instead of moving onto the next play, the Clippers have a penchant for dwelling on previous mistakes, which usually leads to more mistakes.
“The only thing I didn't like, I thought they were frustrated when they scored, which is good. You want them to be. But you got to keep playing,” Rivers said. “I thought there was some residual. One guy knows that the defense broke down because there was somebody else. Instead of just keeping playing, you felt like you had to tell them. I'm saying, ‘OK, let's tell them later, but let's just keep playing.’
“It's human nature. Guys want to win. They all want to win. I get that, have no problem with that, but we have to move past that.”
Chances are the Clippers aren’t going to become the defensive team they want to be overnight, and certainly not before Game 4 on Sunday. But they’ll need to at least move in that direction if they hope to win and get past the second round for the first time in franchise history.
“We just have come out ready to play,” Paul said. “It's a tough one here, but we need to get Game 4. It's like a must-win for us. We knew that we were going to have to win at least one there, and now we're going to have to win two there. We're going to have to start off with a Game 4 win.”