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LOS ANGELES -- Most of the fanfare sparked by the Los Angeles Clippers' trade for Doc Rivers celebrated the cultural significance of his arrival. A franchise with little pedigree and a core that had never sniffed a conference finals would now be led by one of the league's elite motivators, a coach who could brandish a ring and demand accountability.
But as much as Rivers' Boston Celtics teams were all about Ubuntu and collective intensity, they were also finely tuned machines. Brotherhood helps the gears run smoothly, but the Celtics hung a banner and remained an Eastern Conference power on the strength and precision of their schemes.
The Clippers' 116-103 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers drove home this point. The failings shouldn't be chalked up to overconfidence or an inability or unwillingness to defend, but rather the stark reality that this stuff can be really hard to master, especially on opening night against a team engaged in all-out guerrilla campaign.
|Chris Paul and Doc Rivers talk things over during an opening defeat.|
This isn't to sugarcoat the shortcomings. The Clippers' defense looked awful for much of the game. A team that put guarding the 3-point line among its primary objectives coming into the season got drilled from the beyond the arc, as the Lakers made 14 of 29 (and missed a few wide-open looks). The likes of Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry annihilated the Clippers off the dribble. Coverages broke down at the mere suggestion of misdirection.
"It was everybody," Rivers said. "Our guards pulled in at the wrong time -- going for steals, gambling, breaking coverage. It's just like in football. When you break coverage you better hope that the quarterback doesn't see it."
The Lakers saw it and, to their credit, so did the Clippers. To a man, each acknowledged the central issue.
"The trust," Blake Griffin said. "Not so much like you don't think this guy is going to help you. It's one of those things where when you're scrambling around, you kind of revert back to bad habits, or you revert back to old habits, not necessarily bad."
Rivers has imported a sophisticated, nuanced defensive scheme. Though he insisted after the game it wasn't rocket science, he allowed for the fact that any tactical strategy requires reps before mastery. While nobody in the Clippers' locker room on Tuesday night was blasé over the hemorrhaging, there was an acknowledgement that these were failures that can be addressed with a collective effort over time.
"Trust is built on habitual actions," new Clippers guard J.J. Redick said. "When you lose trust a little bit, you revert back to your prior habits, which we did a little bit -- not going over on a dribble handoff, going under Henry and he hits a 3, the wrong guy takes the roll man. It's all stuff we'll get."
It's worth noting that the diagnosis of Redick and Griffin were nearly identical -- reverting to old habits in lieu of embracing a new trust.
Though everyone claimed responsibility, Rivers did go out of his way to praise the defense of one player -- center DeAndre Jordan. Before the opening tip of the preseason, Rivers had practically launched Jordan's campaign for the NBA All-Defense team and Jordan largely fulfilled those expectations on Tuesday.
"I thought D.J. was sensational tonight," Rivers said. "I thought him in particular. Blake, we have to get him better defensively -- and everybody -- but I thought D.J. was unbelievable."
From the outset, Jordan was the lone bright spot in the Clippers' coverages. When his guard teammates got hung up on a high pick, Jordan quickly corralled the ball handler at the point of attack, then crisply rotated back when the ball moved.
"I'm really just doing my job, being in the spots they want me to be in," Jordan said. "I've got to get better at it."
Defensively, Jordan has traditionally relied more on his athleticism and bounciness than location and tactics. But ever since Rivers' arrival, there's a marked shift in his language when he talks about defense. It used to be platitudes, hustle and effort, but now he speaks like a guy ready to defend his dissertation.
"I've got to call [the opponent's play] out early, then be up there early for him," Jordan said when asked about the relationship between big man and guard on the pick-and-roll. "If not, then we're already dead. And when I'm down the line after the screen, he has to hurry and get back in front of his man. Then I have to get back to where I'm supposed to be. We have to be on a string."
On a string. That's some hardcore Eastern Conference talk from a team that hasn't vested all that much in its defense in recent seasons, and it comes from a guy who's going to have to man the back line.
That's why 0-1 doesn't seem like a monumental crisis. The NBA season may be far too long, but those 82 games provide a gentle incline that smart teams turn into a learning curve. And if nothing else, this Clippers team seems smarter and more self-aware.